Writing what we know — and a special book to give away

We were in the throes of change: selling a house, moving in with my parents, buying a house, fixing up a house, moving into that house, giving up on fixing up the house, deciding to tear the whole thing down instead, moving back in with my parents, building a house. In the midst of these prolonged real estate dramas, we suffered the strain of pulling up roots in a place that we loved and trying to sink roots down into another that we barely knew. I lost my job. My husband started a business. Meanwhile, we were also trying to parent two wildly different boys, one of whom thought we had ruined his life forever by leaving our “perfect” neighborhood, while the other yearned for a chance to shed his old reputation as the shyest kid in school and start fresh in a new place.

“You should write about this,” friends would suggest, as they watched me flail and struggle and try to make some sense of it all.

“No way,” I’d say. In fact, I was trying to research a book about the pressures of the college application process on today’s over-scheduled, over-burdened teenagers. The problem was, the only teenagers I knew well enough to write about were the two I happened to live with — and I’d already begun to suspect that neither of them would follow a straightforward, predictable path to higher education. When I tried to make broad statements about anything outside of my own experience, I felt like a fraud. I noticed that bits of my own everyday life kept creeping into the manuscript. Pretty soon, as my notes gathered dust, I found myself writing about what I was thinking about: how I wanted to live, what mattered, what made me cry, what I loved about being a mother of growing boys, what I already missed about the days that were over, what I was trying to cherish in the here and now.

Frustrated, discouraged, fearing defeat, I sent a batch of pages off to my editor. “I’m not too excited about all the facts and figures and academic stuff,” she wrote back, “but I love reading about your family.”

I threw away a hundred numbing, belabored pages and finally admitted to myself that, like it or not, I seemed to be writing a memoir.

How I wish I’d had Marion Roach Smith’s brilliant book, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life, to tell me how to do it. And by “it” I mean both the writing and the living. For what makes Marion such a remarkable guide and teacher is the fact that she knows full well that the writing and the living are inextricably bound together, that the “big stuff” scares us all, both in life and on the page, and that it always comes down to a choice, as she says, “to either flee the room or shove the fear aside and fill the space with something better.”

There was barely an hour that passed as I slogged away on my book that I wasn’t sorely tempted to flee the room. But the thing was, there was barely a day during those years that I didn’t also wish to flee my life. Both the writing and the living felt so hard!

Marion, in her wisdom, reminds us that just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother. In fact, as her own vividly told personal stories and examples make clear, only by staying put, only by hanging in there through the tough stuff, do we find out what we really need to know and what we really have to say. “You have to be present to win,” she says.

Could this disarming, compellingly readable little book possibly be a manual for how to live your life, disguised as a manual telling you how to write about it? I’m not sure, but I do know that you needn’t be a writer to find useful instruction in these pages. For aren’t we all tempted, every single day of our lives, to flee the room? And isn’t it true that only by staying put and doing the work — whether it’s feeling our feelings or speaking our truth or writing our story — do we begin to grow in faith and strength and wisdom?

Marion Roach Smith not only shows us how to “replace the fear with something better” and get our stuff out of our heads and down onto the page, she also reminds us that our stories matter—whether we’re writing an anecdote for the school newsletter, a eulogy for a friend’s funeral, or a memoir to share with the world. In fact, our stories, all of them, matter enough to be worth crafting well. “Learn to write with intent,” she predicts, “and you might learn something about your life.”

I wasn’t able to avail myself of Marion’s expertise as I was trying to figure out what my last book was about, but she has already helped me ask the right questions as I embark on the next. And I am delighted to have become online friends with Marion through her sister Margaret, whose memoir And I Shall Have Some Peace There remains an all-time favorite. When anyone asks me for writerly advice these days, I simply say, “Go buy The Memoir Project, make a pot of tea, and then treat yourself to the most cogent 96-page lesson in writing what you know that you will ever read.” So it is a great pleasure to be able to combine forces with Marion and Margaret to celebrate the publication of this essential book by giving away two copies here.

How to Win 1 of 6 Copies of The Memoir Project

MARION, MARGARET, AND I are each giving away two copies of Marion’s new book “The Memoir Project,” and all you have to do to win is comment, answering the question:

What memoir made a difference to you, and why?

Copy and paste your comment onto all three of our blogs to triple your chances of winning—again, each of us has two copies to share, and we’ll all draw winners at random (using the tool at random dot org) after entries close at midnight Saturday, June 18.

Comment here.
On Marion’s site
And on Margaret Roach’s, whose lovely book “And I Shall Have Some Peace There,” has been hailed as, “A moving, eloquent and joyously idiosyncratic memoir.” (Kirkus Reviews)

Now we are pretty flexible, we three, so even if you don’t want to name a favorite memoir, or you have a title but not a reason why, that’s OK. Simply say, “I want to win,” or “Count me in” or some such, and your entry will be official. But remember: copy and paste it on all three blogs. Good luck! (And we can’t wait to see the booklist you help generate with your replies.)

Spirit. And books for you!

Last month, my pal Margaret Roach and I gave away four books each – and in return, you gave us hundreds of thoughtful comments and generated the best reading list we’d seen anywhere. So of course, we thought: Let’s do this again! This time, we’re celebrating the official publication date of Margaret’s And I Shall Have Some Peace There, as well as the new paperback edition of Dani Shapiro’s gorgeous memoir, Devotion. What better way to enjoy the gift of these ordinary days of February than with good books and good friends?

If there’s one thing (actually there are many, but you’ll figure that out!) that our three stories have in common it’s that we all touch on matters spiritual. As writers, as women, as humans, we have each found ourselves longing for something ineffable – call it more feeling, more spirit, more love, more faith in life as it is. And we’ve drawn closer to this “more” in the most ordinary places: the garden, the yoga mat, the kitchen sink, the dinner table.

Reading Dani Shapiro’s Devotion, last year, I found myself thinking, “Oh, if only she had written this book sooner, I wouldn’t have had to go to all the effort of writing one myself!” It was an odd notion, for Dani’s spiritual odyssey – from a deeply religious and traditional Jewish childhood to a profoundly transformative exploration of Buddhism and yoga — bears almost no resemblance to my own casually Protestant rural upbringing and midlife floundering.

And yet, again and again, the questions that plagued Dani as she dealt with the early loss of her parents, her infant son’s critical illness, and her nagging self-doubt and anxiety, seemed eerily similar to my own sense of loss and confusion as my children grew into adolescence and I felt the old routines and rituals that had sustained our family life begin to slip away. How could we be so very different, and still have so much in common?

I’m not even sure now who sent the first Facebook message, but, having tread so closely upon one another’s heels through this rocky territory of loss and change and letting go, meeting face to face seemed like a small, yet utterly necessary, leap to make. It wasn’t long before we managed to get ourselves seated across from one another over a couple of lattes, talking as if we’d been friends all our lives.

The last time I saw Dani, I brought her a signed copy of Margaret’s bound galley, eager to connect even more wires and expand our little group. So what if, at first blush, Margaret’s story of leaving the fast-paced world of New York publishing for a solitary life in the country appeared to have little bearing on Dani’s explorations of faith and doubt and motherhood? I was coming to see that, once you peel away the first layer of external circumstance in any of our lives, what’s left, pulsing right below the surface, is practically universal: the yearning for connection, contentment, meaning, and peace.

And perhaps this is the most wonderful thing about reading and writing memoir – private, unknown, and unlikely meetings of the heart and soul occur within the pages of books every single day. Certainly the relationship between author and reader can be as intensely personal, as intimate, as healing, as any in real life. As it turned out, Margaret herself was already a devoted Dani fan. We had all discovered one other in print first, had read each other’s work with a sense of deep and abiding recognition, and had realized, with sighs of relief, that we weren’t alone in our seeking after all.

Spirit. I search for it all the time, everywhere. And then I remember: it’s always right here, right where I am, whenever I pause long enough to really pay attention to the world, whenever I notice what’s already right in front of me. Certainly, I find it expressed in the words of these two extraordinary writers I’ve come to know and love, both in print and in life. What a pleasure it is to introduce them to you, to make our circle even bigger, to invite everyone in.

“Much has already happened, and has formed the shape of our lives as surely as water shapes rock. We can’t see what’s coming. We can’t know it. All we have is our hope that all will be well, and our knowledge that it won’t always be so. We live in the space between this hope and this knowledge.”
–from Devotion by Dani Shapiro

“The greater Garden, capital G, perpetually tries to take over the relatively puny one that I have placed in its shadow. It musters forces far greater than a barn full of tools and these two hands. . .will be able to keep at a distance forever. We are small, we are nobody—but when we are out there toiling—turning the compost, harvesting the year’s sweet potatoes, planting only the biggest cloves of the previous garlic crop to continue to improve our own strain—we are also part of something infinite.”
–from And I Shall Have Some Peace There
by Margaret Roach

TO ENTER TO WIN ONE OF SIX SETS OF 3 BOOKS EACH, comment here and on Margaret and Dani’s sites. Tell us: Where do you seek and find spirit in your life? If you’re feeling shy, no problem, you can simply say “Count me in!” (But we do love hearing from you, and the more answers to our question, the more interesting the conversation!) Leave a comment on all three sites and you’ll triple your chances of winning our books.

Entries close at midnight Saturday, February 19, with winners to be drawn at random (using the tool at random [dot] org) and announced the next day.

Remember: Once you post your entry here, go see Margaret and Dani to triple your chances. And if you’ve been sent over to my site by one of them, Welcome! I’m glad you’re here. If you like what you read, do come back – you can subscribe in the box to the left.

Want the Books Now?

A New Friend, A Give-away

“What really knocks me out is a book, when you’re all done reading it, you wish that the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
–Holden Caufield, Catcher in the Rye

Is there a reader alive who hasn’t entertained some version of this fantasy? Sometimes, if you’re lucky and the stars line up, the author of one of your favorite books suddenly shows up smack dab in the middle of your life. This year, it happened to me.

I was sitting in my editor’s office in New York last fall, perusing her shelves, when a book jacket caught my eye: a photo of two Bosc pears and a granny smith apple ripening on a window sill. A title that resonated through my being like the sound of a perfectly tuned note struck on a piano: And I Shall Have Some Peace There. A subtitle that intrigued: “trading in the fast lane for my own dirt road.” A name that sounded vaguely familiar (where had I heard that name before?): Margaret Roach.

I dilly-dallied for a moment, trying to figure out a way to get her to offer me one of the precious advance reading copies (“ARC’s” in the trade, which are actually bound, uncorrected proofs that are more expensive to produce than finished books and therefore not to be carelessly tossed to every curious passerby).

“Oh,” my editor said, waving her hand, “your books are really different. Margaret used to be the editorial director of Martha Stewart Omnimedia (that’s why I knew the name!). And then, well, she just gave it all up and ran away. To a little cottage in the country. . .”

By then my begging hand was out, unabashed. I wasn’t leaving the room without a copy of that book in my bag.

Flash forward a few weeks, to October and the New England Booksellers’ Show in Providence, Rhode Island. I had been invited, along with a slew of other New England authors, to attend a cocktail party for booksellers. Our task was simply to sit at our respective tables, sip wine, sign books, and meet the men and women who, against all odds, continue to fling open their doors every morning and sell real books to readers who still prefer printed words on paper to pixels on a screen.

I felt lucky to be there. And yet, in the way of someone who has spent most of the last three years sitting at her kitchen table in a pair of sweatpants, typing, I’d obsessed for two days over what to wear to this very public event. (Every sweater I owned was covered with little pills; my dresses were all too, well, dressy; my sturdy black knit pants seemed so old-fashioned and corporate.) The truth is, I haven’t been to a cocktail party in years, not since I left my own publishing career to raise babies and read short stories from home and try my hand at writing. Before leaving home that morning, I’d found a $22 necklace in one of the two clothing stores in my town. Here was an affordable accessory that might place me in the 21st-century–big fat beads instead of tiny ones — hip and festive enough, I thought, to carry the day.

Two tables down from mine, I suddenly recognized a woman similarly dressed, right down to the safely nondescript black cardigan accented by a chunky necklace almost exactly like my own. Margaret! At some point, between bookseller conversations, we sought one another out. “I just read your book!” we both exclaimed, at the same time. And then, “Look at us, with the same necklace!” By the time we parted ways, we’d exchanged email addresses and phone numbers and promises to get together.

And get together we did. Since that rainy October evening, I’ve spent many a night at Margaret’s house, doing our middle-aged ladies’ version of a sleep-over. (Out for dinner at 5:30 or 6, tea in her little kitchen, off to our respective beds by nine or so, so we can get up early in the morning and commune with her cat Jack and chat about books and writing and life.)

On the face of it, I suppose, our books are different. Margaret is single, childless, a former high-powered executive who also happens to be a passionately knowledgeable gardener (her phenomenally popular garden blog, http://www.awaytogarden.com/, has been hailed by a New York Times reporter as “the best garden blog I’ve ever seen”). While she was being a mover and shaker in the fast-paced world of New York publishing, I was at home with my kids. While she was creating dazzling magazine spreads for Martha Stewart, I was trying to figure out what to make for dinner. While she was becoming an expert on ground covers and how to graft a tomato plant, I was attempting to guide my son through the college application process.

And yet. The thing that Margaret and I both realized right away was that in the ways that really count, our journeys — and our books — are far more alike than different. Over and over again, as I read her galley, I found myself turning over page corners, making little stars and exclamation points next to her paragraphs, thinking to myself, “Exactly!”

Margaret realized that she could go on doing what she had always done, as she writes: “going to the office; returning from the office; going to the office; returning from the office.” Or, she could begin to envision a different sort of life altogether. She could walk away from who she’d been, and begin to discover who she might become. To do so, after a lifetime of reaching for the brass ring, meant confronting the question, “Who am I if I am not mroach@marthastewart.com any longer?”

Take away the staff, the New York office, the trappings of success, the glamour and glitz of Martha, and that question is not so very different, really, from the one that I found myself asking as my children grew up and my older son headed off to a life of his own: “Who am I if I’m not the 24/7 mom of Henry and Jack any longer?”

It is, I think, just a variation on the essential, haunting questions that we all ask ourselves as old identites are outlived, our lives irrevocably transformed by time. Change, it is said, is inevitable; growth is optional. My own yearning to continue to grow and learn and deepen is as fierce these days as ever. I keep searching for the lessons in the losses, the wisdom that is midlife’s hardwon compensation. And so, I’m always asking: What now? What matters? How can the life I live reflect the truth of who I really am ?

Reading Margaret’s book, I knew I’d found a soul mate (one who takes the time to notice the sights and sounds and smells of ordinary life); a fellow seeker, (one who happens to be really funny and exceedingly honest about her search and her own shortcomings); and a fast friend on the page. That we have become, as Holden would say, “terrific friends” in life as well has been one of the most glorious gifts of this year.

Over the last months, Margaret has sat me down in front of the WordPress dashboard and, in a series of tutorials, taught me how to “drive.” (This website, I’m certain, would not yet exist if it weren’t for her generosity.) She has offered to deliver care packages to my son at school; in a happy coincidence, he is thirty minutes from where she lives, which means that a visit to Jack always includes a visit with Margaret.  She’s given me a bed whenever I want one, breakfasts and dinners, stories and advice, and, always, the perfect book to read at the perfect time.

Yesterday morning, Margaret and I sat at her kitchen table — her with green tea, me with my cup of strong coffee — plotting. Why not put our two more-alike-than-different books together, and offer them to YOU, our readers? Why not get everyone properly introduced, and reading together? And why not find out what books about journeys (both inner voyages and outer ones) and second life chapters have inspired you? We would love to know! Hence, today’s book give-away.

To Enter the Give-away

To enter to win one of four sets of books, comment here and on Margaret’s site, noting in both places the name of another book about personal transition that you identified with. Tell us why, too, if you wish. (Feel free just to say, “Count me in,” or “I want to win”  — but if you feel like sharing an inspirational book title, and a sense of the “why” behind your choice instead, please do; all the better.)

Entries close at midnight Sunday, January 23, with winners to be drawn at random (using the tool at random [dot] org) and announced the next day.

Remember: Once you post your entry here, go visit Margaret to double your chances