Friday, June 21, 2013

Single Motherhood

This is what single-motherhood looks like: 8-year-old in the back seat, bleeding profusely from a bone-deep gash on her knee, paper towels soaked in her blood beneath a dish towel I tied in a hasty knot around her leg. Her 6-year-old sister, so queasy from the sight of the wound that her face is not green but grey, holding a mixing bowl in her lap and a wad of napkins in her hand. It's nearing their bedtime, we never got to eat the dinner I made, I'm nursing a burn on my forearm from my haste to get the dinner out of the oven, the sleepover guest was sent home in a tearful, frightened rush, and I'm racing toward the clinic that will stitch my daughter up, all the while reassuring her that she's fine, it isn't that bad, it won't hurt much. I'm lying. The wound looked horrible. A half-dollar sized hole that showed her nice white bone beneath. I know it will hurt like hell. But I'm all she's got, and so I'm building her up as best I can as I speed down the street. That's single motherhood. It's not pretty. But it's reality.

We've had our share of illnesses, injuries, late-night rushes to after-hours urgent care clinics and it's always been this way. The three of us. One injured kid, one focused mom, one kid dragged along for the ride because that's just how it is. We rise and fall together. We see each other through the highs and lows. We are a united front.

Once the wound was cleaned, stitched up, bandaged, and we were on our way home, then I got my bonus mommy-points. The queasy kid felt better the moment her sister was up and walking without tears. The injured kid loved how numb her whole leg felt. And they both loved me. "You're the best mommy ever," the wounded one said. "I would've been so scared if you weren't there." She'd already forgotten that I had to sit on her while the doctor injected the wound over and over to numb it. She was in relief mode. "You always know exactly what to do," the no-longer queasy one said. Her clean, unused bowl was upside down on her head, a large blue hat, and her complexion was pink again. We were all giggling about the mixing-bowl hat. "I really like our family," one kid said, and the other agreed, and I concurred. We arrived home, responded to the concerned messages that had come in, warmed up our dinner, and ate and laughed and sang and did all that we could to forget those frightening moments after my daughter came running in from the back yard, blood everywhere, to tell me she fell down and it was bad.

When my marriage was failing, this was exactly the kind of scenario that I feared the most. How would I handle all of it, every bad thing, alone? Not even alone, but with two kids in tow? But the answer is, I just would. Because that's what you do. Some nights there will be emergencies and no back-up. Those nights you put your fear aside and get the job done. And in those moments you realize that you had nothing to fear, because you're a hell of a lot stronger than you thought you were.

My 8-year-old daughter is the emotional one, the sensitive one, the worrier. She rarely gets hurt, because she's my careful one. Seeing her injured and frightened was hard. But it was also an opportunity to pass along some of my hard-earned wisdom. "You've got this," I told her as she cried, bracing for the pain of the lidocaine shots. "You're so much stronger than you know." And after it was all over, as she cradled the toys they'd given her from the treasure box and admired her new blue bandage, she smiled up at me. "You're right," she said. "I am stronger than I thought." Later she tried to convince me that her sister, the fearless one, my usually-injured child, is actually stronger, and I wouldn't let her get away with that. "You're equally strong," I told her. "The only difference is that your sister knows she's strong, and you don't believe it about yourself yet." She let that sit for a few minutes, then she raised her head and stuck out her chin, just a little. "Maybe," she said. "Maybe I am strong. Maybe I'm as strong as you."

And that's what single motherhood looks like, too. Having those moments, when you first see that fight in your daughter's eyes, first see her begin to believe in her own bottomless well of strength, and you get to keep those powerful moments all to yourself, because you were the one who was there when it happened.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

It's Official

I have a novel coming out! This crazy, decades-long dream of mine is becoming a reality, just like that. My awesome agent, Harvey Klinger, who expertly and kindly helped me shape my book, by showing me what unnecessary sections to cut, where to deepen characters, where to tighten the action, gave me the best Mother's Day gift by pronouncing my novel ready for submission to publishers. Two weeks later, I had a book deal. This next phase in my journey is happening head-snapping fast, but it also took a long time to come, which is probably the best way to receive success--pay your dues, dream your dream, work all day every day at it as hard as you possibly can, and then let it come.

This particular book, The Art of Adapting, (my 5th novel attempt) came fast and furiously, like it fully downloaded into my brain as I slept, and I raced through my writing sessions each day to keep up with the words filling my mind. I knew it centered around a man with Asperger's, inspired by but not based on my uncle who had Asperger's, and the rest followed quickly once I'd made that choice. His sister came to me next. She was going through a divorce, sort of empty-nesting with her new lack of a husband and children who no longer needed her as much as they once had. Her brother was going to be her new project. Her two teenage children caught in this family-in-flux also demanded their own voices. Her son was vying for popularity while lusting after his best-friend's sister, trying to get up the nerve to abandon a promising athletic future to pursue his true love, art. Her perfectionist daughter was battling invisibility, her first academic falterings, first love, and anorexia. The structure was set. Alternating voices of these four characters, each going through their own separate issues, each learning that fine balance of both standing alone and leaning on the people who love you. I had my first draft done in a few months, put it away while I started a new novel, then returned to it for revisions, sent it off to my beta readers, and revised one last time based on their feedback.

When I finished my novel, I decided to query agents in batches of 5, one batch per week. It seemed less overwhelming that way. I started with my top 5 choices. Harvey Klinger was among them. He got back to me a few hours after receiving my submission, and asked to see the opening chapters. A month later he asked to see the whole manuscript. Two weeks later, he wrote to say that it had potential but needed work, and that if I was willing to revise it with his direction, he was sure we could turn it into something he could sell. I had no idea what a significant moment that was when I accepted his offer and got to work. I was thrilled to have anyone out there believe in my book, in me. I knew the book wasn't perfect. I couldn't wait to make it better. Over the next few months, I cut over half of my preciously-written words (almost 50k words cut in all--ouch). I eliminated endless pages of backstory, minor characters, distracting plot lines, weak scenes, some entire chapters, and delved deeper into everything left. The best thing about Harvey is that his critique style worked so well with my writing style. He told me where my trouble areas were, and left it to me to fix the problems. He asked some great, hard questions, and I wrote and cut and revised until I had the answers. The book is now a fairly different manuscript than the one I initially sent to him, but every word of it is still mine.

When Harvey started the submissions process I tried not to think about it. I'd heard how long it can take for an agent to sell a book, horror stories of a year gone by and no interested publishers. Still, I checked my cell phone and email about a hundred times a day, just wondering. Nine days later, I got a nice email message that we had an interested publisher, and Harvey said he'd get back to me as soon as he knew more. When he called a few days later, the first thing Harvey said to me was "Sit down." I did. "Sold," he said. I don't really remember the rest of our conversation.

And just like that, come next spring The Art of Adapting will be published by Touchstone Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. It will have gone from words in my head to a real concrete thing that I can hold in my hands and show my kids and beg my friends and family to buy so that I can sign it with ridiculous gushings about how much I love each and every one of them. I can't tell you how many times I've hovered outside a bookstore wondering what it'd be like to see one of my own novels on display there. The fact that this will be happening in less than a year is mind-blowing. The kind of shock to the system that keeps waking me up at 3am, wondering if it's all really, finally happening, or if I was dreaming.

I can tell next year's going to be a crazy busy, crazy good year. I can feel how all of the time I've spent mastering the perfect balance of this single mom gig with blocks of time set aside for writing is about to get shaken up and I'll have to rebalance frequently and call in some serious babysitting favors along the way. But I'm ready. My girls are aware that with this new phase in my career comes time away from them. I've promised to take them with me when I can, because I don't want to give up the mommy gig, and because I want them to be a part of this next phase, too. It's as much for them as it is for me. They've given up a fair share of mommy time for this book. They've seen me spending hours on end in front of my computer, talking out loud to myself as I test phrases and snippets of dialogue. They get the quiet, introverted part of the job. But I don't think they had a clear sense of the end goal. I promised them a family trip to Hawaii once I'd sold my book, though, and you better believe it took them all of ten seconds to make good on that promise.

My daughters are both rock-star readers, reading several grades ahead of their age, and they both have a natural gift for writing that I wish I could say I taught them, but had absolutely nothing to do with. At six and eight, they know a lot more about this craft than I did at their ages, and they both get used as examples of good writing in their classes frequently. I know they inherently understand the nuts-and-bolts part of my job, but now I want them to understand what all of those writing sessions of mine were working toward. When I stand in that bookstore for the first time, looking at my novel on display there, I want them standing beside me.

Until then, it's back to work on my new novel. The character voices are so strong that I wake up in mid-conversation with them. I'm not sure where it's headed yet, but I know the only way to find out is to push the excitement aside for a few hours a day to write. My daughters are my best cheerleaders, always. They have promised to give me quiet time to write this summer while they are off school. Once the Hawaii trip is booked.