Saturday, May 31, 2014

The New Reader

These days, in the new world of book publishing (and if you didn’t know there was a new world, look here and here) things are a little different. As a writer and newly published author who chose the so-called “partnership” route, my world has become all about building a digital platform, promotion, marketing and social media. I am getting a new education in publishing; the old world, the one I dreamed about when I was young where Mr. Big Publishing House came along and scooped me up, printed my words and set me up to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson no longer exists. Yes, because Johnny Carson is dead, but also because of the new way books are published.  

It is an exciting time for people in the book biz. Authors are getting their work out there like no other time before due to independent publishers, self-publishing, partnership publishing - whatever you want to call it. It’s out there and it’s exciting. But most of the education is aimed toward the new author-- all the how-to articles, websites and other new books help the author stick her or his toes into the fast running current of self-publishing and keep their heads above water.  I myself have been treading water as fast as I can. Dory from Finding Nemo is my new muse: “Just keep swimming!” All that help and support is well and good for me and all my new peers and colleagues, because it’s a big learning curve. But I wonder who is going to tell the public how to navigate in this new world, because as it stands now, I don’t think they’ve noticed the change. 

This occurred to me this morning as I sat down to check on my platform architecture - just to see how it’s holding up. Last night I posted another plea to my Facebook friends and followers to write a review of my book. “If you review it, it will sell,” I said cleverly to my friends and one of them responded within minutes and my Amazon reviews grew to seven.  I was overjoyed, as I am every time anyone says anything nice about my book.  Writing and publishing a book (aka having a dream come true) is not exactly like leaving your first born child on the first day of school with a bunch of other people you don’t know and learning how to stay away for the whole day, but it’s a little like that. Obviously, you want people to like it and it feels good when people say nice things, but in this new world, it matters that they do for more vital reasons and not just to make you feel good. In the old days, publishers sent the books out to stores and libraries, and people would buy them, read them, love them (hopefully) and didn’t worry whether or not the author was feeding his family or making the insurance payment on her car.  The publisher took care of the author. The reader took care of the reader. 

It’s a little more symbiotic than that now, but nobody told them. Readers are still behaving like they always have (god bless ‘em) reading voraciously until their next favorite author comes out or finding some new author through a friend. The advance of technology has given readers a little more connection with the authors they were reading. One didn’t have to wait for a university or a library to have a Famous Author come and give a talk; just pop on the internet and check out Famous Author’s website.  Even as Amazon carved its own enormous space in the market and allowed members to “review” their book purchases, I don’t think anyone really realized that their review made a difference. As with Goodreads, which is solely an online community of readers and encourages member reviews, I think the typical reader feels like their review “won’t count”. How in the world can Ms. Jane Smith’s review impact anything except her book group’s next novel or her mother’s next birthday gift, not when Publishers Weekly, The New York Times or Kirkus are out there with their authority and clout.

I think it surprises most people to learn that writing a review about a book makes a difference to the author.  Reading behavior, like writing behavior, is an individual and solitary experience. Even if you belong to a book group, the actual reading of a book is an intimate process, much like writing it. To transfer that experience to one that is written and public in larger community is part of the learning curve. It’s part of the learning for the writer, and, I also believe, for the new reader.

When I talked to my husband about it, he said, “Be direct. Just ask people to write a review.”  So I said, “Will you write a review?” It didn’t even occur to him that he could write one. Everyone can write one. My family, my friends. Even with the disclaimer that a review was written by a friend, family member or colleague, a review will help to guide the next reader to choose your book. And then tell another reader, and another. And that, boys and girls, is how to be a part of the new book publishing world.  Come on in. The water's fine.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ladies Who Lunch

The following is an essay I wrote for the Friend's of the Watertown Library's annual Spring Luncheon, at which I was honored to be the guest speaker. I decided to post it here for two reasons: One, many people should know about the work that is done "behind the scenes" for our library, not the least of which is raising funds for improvements. And, two, there are hundreds of Friends groups all over the state and country who are doing the same thing. The Friends groups are mainly retired folks who give of their time and expertise. If you haven't joined your local Friends group, it's a good idea. Our membership dues are $10 a year. Yours are probably equally affordable! 

And if you haven't dropped in lately, go visit your public library and see what's going on there these days. I'll bet that it's more than you realize! So, in honor of the Friends of our town library, here's to the ladies who lunch...

Ladies who lunch is a phrase often used to describe well-off, well-dressed women who meet for social luncheons, usually during the week. Typically, the women involved are married and non-working. Normally the lunch is in a high-class restaurant, but could also take place in a department store during a shopping trip. Sometimes the lunch takes place under the pretext of raising money for charity.

The phrase "ladies who lunch" was introduced in the January 19, 1970 issue of New York magazine by the writer Merle Rubine, and she was describing ladies with enough fashion sense to buy at half-price but not admit it to anyone.

It was later popularized by a song of the same name in Stephen Sondheim's Company. The character Joanne, a cynical, middle-aged woman, makes a drunken toast to "The Ladies Who Lunch." Her song offers a harsh criticism of rich women who waste their time with frivolous things like luncheons and parties. At the end of the song, Joanne realizes that she is one of the "ladies who lunch." She spends her time criticizing the lives of other women, but she never does anything to improve her own life.

That is what Ladies who lunch used to mean. Now, at least for me, it means this:
A veritable army of women who, upon seeing a need, rally to address it in the most effective and efficient way possible.

In the summer of 2008, I had left a full time job without so much as a Plan B. While I looked around for other jobs, part-time or otherwise, I found myself in early September at the annual meeting of the Friends of the Watertown Library, held in the basement of the Oakville Branch.  There was a presentation from a local businessperson and following that, the annual meeting. After that; refreshments. Some of the faces in the room I recognized from around town, but I didn’t know anyone well nor did anyone know me. One thing was certain: everyone knew I was fresh blood. You will not be surprised to hear that I was roped in to membership and a job before I even had my cake.

“Edit the newsletter? Sure!” I agreed and suddenly I was in. This may or may not have been when I also agreed to head up the annual Poetry Contest held for the grade 1-5 students in town. I left the meeting that day full of cake, and several new items on my once-empty calendar. I was a Friend of the Watertown Library Association.

Since my memory isn’t what it once was, (obviously, or I would have remembered to say “well, let me think that over” to those job offers instead of “sure, I’ll do that!”) there is not a clear trajectory to my involvement with the Friends. I do know that each time I attended a board meeting or popped in to the Book Nook, there were people getting things done. Much of the time it was women, but occasionally one of the Misters could be found in various stages of heavy lifting.  But the work didn’t stop at volunteering to carry, clean, and cashier books. The opportunities of the Internet did not daunt this group and an Ebay store and Facebook page were quickly created and managed. Fascinating speakers and authors came to town with their books - old favorites or newly published - and offered personal glimpses into the writing process and story creation.  Programs were developed, considered, improved and promoted. The Farmer’s Market added summer hours to the Book Nook and more opportunities for Watertown residents to discover its value. Thinking up ways to involve more members into attending the annual meeting were successful: Now why didn’t we think of lunch at the Miranda vineyard before?

Each Friend has a gift of her or his own which they bring to the organization that in turn builds it from simply a group of women connecting around books, to an intrepid operation whose forward motion is rarely stopped.  The Friends consistently contribute to the Library Association at the Annual Spring Luncheon every year.
However, it is the love of books that brings us all together. Whether or not our Friends job is to clean, write or bake, what we really love to do is read. And talk about what we’re reading and compare authors and series and genres. Talking about what we love makes working together pretty much fun. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the Book Nook when there wasn’t someone laughing at someone else’s story or smiling at pictures of grandkids. Or at our actual grandkids.  The first time I brought Luca to the Book Nook, we came down the dark, steep stairs and opened that heavy door into a world he still refers to when he comes over to my house. He remembers his first visit to the Book Nook (because we bought him over a dozen books) but also because it was like coming upon a wonderland.  And the Friends are the keepers of that wonderland.

So, here’s to the Friends. Of this library and countless others across the country. Your quiet strength and relentless commitment is what gets things done. Thank goodness for ladies who lunch.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Time for Mother's Day

 This one is from the reminds me how grateful I am to be where I am and have the friends and family who make up my life. Have a beautiful day all you Moms and children of Moms! xo

One Mother’s Day morning a few years back, I went outside on my sunny back porch to write in my journal. I hadn’t made an effort to do that that in a while and it felt good to get back to some “me” time. I began to write the words, “My life is in pretty good shape right now…” when suddenly the image of one of our former clients popped into my head. Along with her image, sitting on the brown leather sofa in our office expectantly awaiting the arrival of her two young children, came a flood of thoughts about spending so much time writing--and examining--my life.  Layered on top of the thoughts about how much time I am able to spend processing the thoughts and events that make up my life was the question about whether or not this woman did the same thing. At all. Ever. 

I am a visitation supervisor. I spend hours with each of the families that the Connecticut Judicial Department’s Family Services division refers to us for visitation. These families are in the throes of custodial and familial turmoil and one of the parents has been deemed unfit to spend time with his or her children alone. The reasons are many; drug abuse, neglect, prison time, abandonment, alleged sexual molestation or a mere “he said-she said” dispute. The visiting and custodial parents are rarely amicable, always defensive and just as likely to be a visiting mom as a visiting dad. Regardless of the circumstances, the clear and unavoidable losers in all of these cases are the children. It takes from just a few visits to up to a year of weekly, one-hour visits to settle these cases and our work with the families is just one component of all the issues that are finally (and hopefully) settled by a judge.

The young woman who popped into my thoughts that morning had been one of our visiting moms. I first met her on a cold, dark day in November and as I walked into the waiting room to ask her in, I was met by a wave of pungent odor, the kind of odor one might find in a VW van at an outdoor rock concert. She looked nervous, albeit calm; due possibly to the obvious self-medication right before her arrival. Our typical intake involves getting a history of the client and as she spoke, I heard of her struggles with drug dependence, a series of failed visitation experiences, a history of her own childhood neglect and an overall suspicion of the program she was being asked to begin. I tried to allay her fears, be understanding about her concerns and at the end of it all, assure her that our program has had lots of success with visitations and I was sure that her experience would be no different. After she left, my husband, Angelo (with whom I work) and I looked at each other and said almost simultaneously, “How is this woman ever going to manage this?” But we set up appointments, met her children (a 6 year old girl and a 4 year old boy) and put the process in motion.

The first thing that struck me about this woman was that she was a month younger than my own daughter. I could be her mother. I could be a grandmother, as she already had four children under the age of ten. The other two were from two other separate relationships and they didn’t live with her, either. The two she was going to visit with in our program were from her latest marriage, now dissolved. She worked two jobs, lived with yet another man and although she initially expressed doubt and distrust about the success of “this time” she showed up on time each week for her hour-long visit, carrying a bag from the dollar store with an activity or craft for the kids. Her manner was coarse, but her love genuine as she spent 55 minutes greeting, catching up with and “parenting” her children. At times, after the visit, I would ask her to stay and debrief--how did she feel it was going? Were there any concerns? Did she have any questions? Most of the time these sessions ended with her bursting into tears, complaining about her fate at the hands of a diabolical ex-husband and storming off with little hope of it ever working out.

And yet, she came back. Week after week, month after month. With her bags and snacks and juice boxes and encouragement, despite her own skepticism and the roadblocks put up by her ex. (For example, Dad would insist that the daughter’s homework be done during the visit because she was doing poorly at school--which took about half of the visit time and required Mom’s focus solely on the daughter, while the son had to busy himself with one or another of the toys in the room. Unfair? Certainly. But she did it anyway.) After the first meeting, the only pungent odor I ever noticed was that of hours-old grease from the diner grill where she worked five days a week. One time, she missed the visit completely. The dad was there with the kids, but no mom. This was unusual because she was always at least 10 minutes early. We called the only number we had for her--her current boyfriend’s cell phone. He said she was on her way for her six o’clock visit, but the visit this week had been at five o’clock. I told Dad he had the option of waiting so the kids could have a shortened visit, which I often recommend as the best option because of the disappointment experienced by the kids, but he chose to leave. When Mom showed up, Angelo and I braced for the maelstrom--anticipating a flood of protestations about how it must have been everyone else’s fault but her own. 
But that didn’t happen. She came in and sat down on the sofa and said, “I can’t believe I messed this up. I put it down on my calendar wrong.” I suggested that we place a phone call to the kids and she agreed. I put the call on the speaker (required) and let Mom explain to them what happened. I almost cried at the way she spoke soothingly to her children, explaining that she had made a mistake and understood if they were disappointed in her. The kids seemed glad to have been able to speak to her and when they hung up, she was visibly upset. But upset in a way that she knew that she was at fault and that she had done the best she could to address the issue. I was astounded. And so happy that she was able to deal with this in such a mature and responsible way--and both Angelo and I told her so. She left then and we hoped that this wouldn’t send her back to her old ways of dealing with slip-ups, but she was back the next week with the supplies for a tea party and a make-a-frame activity for the kids to do.

And so I wondered, on that quiet Mother’s Day morning with a few hours to myself, my kids off on an errand and a Mimosa at my fingertips, did that Mom have the luxury of reflection? Socrates said that a life unexamined is not worth living and until I met this woman, and so many others like her, I might have agreed. For her--and them--too much examination might be just too painful. How much time can she ruminate on her life and the choices she’s made without going crazy? Can she only put one foot in front of the other, day in and day out, hoping for the best, expecting the worst? Leaving work, dashing into the Dollar Store, making a 45 minute trip to an office where she can see her kids for a lousy hour, only to get back into the car for a return trip back to work or making arrangements to see her other kids or finally falling exhausted into bed? I can’t imagine what Mother’s Days for her are like; does she get to see her kids after an exhaustive negotiation with their fathers or does she instead spend the day numbing herself, avoiding the tented flower stands and ads for champagne brunches and the picked over greeting card display at the grocery store. The only way I can process my life is to spend time with my thoughts and sometimes that isn’t even enough. In addition, I am lucky to have countless other resources in my life to keep me going, to feel supported, to feel loved. So on Mother’s Day, I try to remember that. I count my blessings and put in writing that I am grateful for a life full of opportunities.  I am lucky for the people in my life who force me to examine my life. And make it worth living.