Parenting, Writing

The Amazing “True” Story of a Teenage Single Mom

Katherine Arnoldi, author of the powerful graphic memoir THE AMAZING “TRUE” STORY OF A TEENAGE SINGLE MOM, is a champion of teen mothers everywhere. Originally published as a zine to distribute to teen Moms near her home in New York City, the book was published by Hyperion in 1998. It has just been reprinted as a paperback by Graymalkin Press.

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As a teen services librarian in the early 2000’s, I observed this award-winning book in constant circulation. Our library’s copies were often marked in the system as lost or stolen, a sure sign of a popular book. It wasn’t until a few months ago, though, that I had the chance to be introduced over email to Katherine through a former library patron (thank you Dana!) and to read her book. Arnoldi’s story is indeed an amazing story and inspiring example for teen moms and others. It’s also a sexual assault survivor story, and gives support to the (too many) people with similar experiences. Above all, it’s a story of tenacity in the face of many obstacles.

Below, my interview with Katherine. I continue to remain inspired by all that she’s done in her life, through writing, art, and beyond. Thank you, Katherine, for your time, for sharing your images, and for your book.

JB: Please describe your original intention in creating and publishing this book, and what subsequently happened with its publication. Can you talk about the different experiences of working with a large press, a small press, and self-publishing?

KA: This was first a “zine” that I would copy myself and take with me, along with FAFSA forms and college applications, to GED programs, neighborhood centers, homeless centers and at Charas Community Center on the Lower East Side of New York City where I ran a College Mom Program. My idea was that, if I told my story of my own struggle to find the way to college, that the teenage mothers would understand that I had had similar experiences as they were having.

It was so fun to go to the 24 hour Kinko’s on Astor Place in New York and spend the entire night putting together a new copy of the zine. Actually, the manager and employees would join me on the floor in putting the zine together. It was a blast. When it was published, I took a copy to the manager to thank him for his support.

Of course, Hyperion is a big publisher and so they arranged for me to appear on the Today Show, the Nightly News, CNN Entertainment Today, the Lenny Lopate Show and many others, which allowed me to say my soundbite, that “teenage mothers do not have equal rights to education.” Also, I do not know if it would have been chosen as One of the Top Ten Books of the Year by Entertainment Weekly without a big press. The fact that it won two American Library Association Awards meant that it was in all of the 6,000 plus libraries in the United States.

[Then] David Zindell, of Graymalkin Media, contacted Binghamton University, where I took my Ph.D, to try to find me to ask if he could publish The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom as a paperback. I am so grateful for the courage and support of Graymalkin Media. Now that it has been updated and re-released as a paperback by Graymalkin I am focused on contacting libraries in hopes they will order it. Robert Clough also bravely wrote a review for the Comics Journal. http://www.tcj.com/reviews/the-amazing-true-story-of-a-teenage-single-mom/

JB: The graphic memoir seems to be the perfect format for this story. What was the process of creating it like?

KA: Fun! My undergraduate degree is in Art, my Master’s and Ph.D. are in Creative Writing, so this form allowed me to combine those degrees with my increasing awareness of the political implications of my own experience.

JB: To sum it up in the most basic terms, your book tells the incredible story of your path from single motherhood – truly unable to rely on anyone – to your starting college and finding a supportive community. Looking at your resume, it looks like the incredible story continued. Can you give a brief synopsis of what you’ve been up to since your early college days (including your scholarship for teenage moms who go to college)?

KA: I would work, then go to school, then work, then go to school. Finally, I now have a Ph.D. But the highlight was my Fulbright Award in 2008-9 to Paraguay. I am an adjunct Professor at CUNY and Fordham University in New York City. In 2005 the Kennedy/Marshall Film Company bought the film rights to The Amazing True Story of a Teenage Single Mom and I took some of that money and opened a Calvert Foundation Giving Fund Award. It gives a scholarship each year (from $400-500) on the interest it earns. The most recent recipient in 2017 was at John Jay College in NYC. This award will go on forever.

JB: Even though this is a serious topic, and a lot of terrible things happen to you over the course of the story, there are touches of humor in the book. Can you talk about using humor in writing about serious subjects?

KA: For example, someone gives me a small tip at a restaurant and tells me to “buy something to wear for myself” but my thought bubble says, “But I wear the same clothes all the way to the end of this book.” The humor is often very self-reflective. Thanks for noticing!

JB: Why is “true” in quotation marks in your title? Is that part of the tribute to superhero stories? Do you consider it to be any less true than any other memoir (beyond the disclaimer at the beginning)?

KA: I was making fun of the first issue of superhero comics, such as the Amazing Spiderman or the Incredible Hulk but, in my case, all I wanted to do was go to college, a very simple desire. Everything in the book is true, and happened to me, but I am not a cartoon character and those huge events are not completely portrayed in such a short book. I chose the events that would move the story forward and tell about my struggle to find the way to college. Much is omitted, of course.

JB: How old is your daughter now? What does she think of the book?

KA: My daughter recognizes that the book helps to inspire teenage mothers to go to college. She is in her late 40’s.

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JB: What advice would you give to your younger self at the outset of the project? Advice for readers who want to tell their own stories?

KA: My advice to myself and others would be to be bolder, to realize the significance of our own experiences and to understand how they apply to many, many others.

JB: Anything else you’d like to add?

KA: Because of the book, I was invited to New York Civil Liberties Union and we started a class action lawsuit against the New York City Board of Education for coercing teenage mothers to leave school. Now, things are better. However, there are 12,000 new teenage mothers each year in NYC and only 700 slots in the child care program in the high schools. What happens to the other 11,300 mothers? I urge everyone to find out how teenage mothers are faring in your community.

nyclu postcard

Book Publication, Vine Leaves Press, Writing

Guest Blogger – Theresa Milstein

Today I’m pleased to present a guest blog post by fellow Vine Leaves Press author Theresa Milstein. Theresa is an editor at Vine Leaves as well as an author. She lives in the Boston area and teaches special ed in my hometown of Belmont, so I already like her even though I don’t know her! I’m excited to read Theresa’s prose & poetry collection, TIME AND CIRCUMSTANCE, which was released this week. Check out the information at the bottom of this post for where to buy the book, as well as info about a contest where you can win a FREE copy (or other cool prize)!

Take it away, Theresa!

My writing process has changed considerably over the years. When I first began, I worked part time and was much younger (had more energy). My children were younger too, so life was busy until they went to bed. I found it easiest to write at night. Since I didn’t know many of the rules, I could belt out a cliché-ridden manuscript in a couple of months. And I had little idea of what revision meant, so I’d look it over a bunch of times, tweak it, and be done. There would be months I wouldn’t write again until another idea came to me. This routine went on for a number of years.

Luckily, I soon found a writing community that connected me with critique groups, workshops, conferences, retreats, and books on writing. The more I learned (and aged), the more I slowed down during drafts, and they were all the better for it. Eventually I began working full time as a teacher. That changed everything. I was too busy to write during the day, too exhausted at night, and so I experienced my longest drought. I was miserable.

Something had to give. I’d received the advice to write short stories to learn to make each word count and have an easier time becoming published. I thought an added bonus would be I could manage writing smaller pieces when I was busy. But something else occurred to me—time wouldn’t be handed to me on a silver platter. I had to make time. From that point on, writing became non-negotiable. I started a Facebook group to hold myself accountable on a daily basis. So nearly every day, I wrote something: a short story, a piece of flash fiction, a poem. And I became happier.

Then I started graduate school, and scheduling time seemed impossible. After a few attempts and almost giving up, I decided to set my alarm an hour earlier than I needed to. When everyone else is sleeping, I sit with a cup of coffee, cat on lap, and a laptop. And I write.

Recently, I’ve been tested again. Since the election, I’ve been using my writing time to inform myself of what’s going on and to take action. This “informing myself” part has been pretty depressing. I’ve been going days without writing. I’ve read a couple of articles* from people who are going through something similar, but it hasn’t helped me to write consistently. I’m trying to give myself a break. And I’ve written some poems in reaction to our new reality, so all is not lost on the writing front. I tell myself that writing is still too important to me, and I’ll find my way back into a routine. In the meantime, I’ve also been focusing my energies in preparing for my book launch.

How do you make time to write?

*

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-hollywood-values-updates-john-scalzi-s-10-point-plan-for-getting-1483653314-htmlstory.html

http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/a51111/making-art-in-trumps-america/

Theresa Milstein writes middle grade and YA, but poetry is her secret passion. Her vignette collection, TIME & CIRCUMSTANCE, will be published by Vine Leaves Press in March 21, 2017. She lives near Boston Massachusetts with her husband, two children, a dog-like cat, and a cat-like dog. For her day job, she works as a special education teacher in a public school, which gives her ample opportunity to observe teens and tweens in their natural habitat.

TIME & CIRCUMSTANCE is available:

$3.99 AUD (eBook)
Kindle AUS
Kindle US
Kindle UK
Kindle CA
iBooks | Kobo | Nook

$12.99 AUD (paperback)
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon CA
Barnes & Noble
Book Depository
Chapters Indigo

Leave a comment and you’re eligible to win a prize during my blog tour!

1 $25 Amazon gift card

1 signed paperback copy

1 ebook

Answer the question:

“If you could relive any moment in time, what would it be?”

Extra entries if you share on Facebook or Twitter and link it to me.

@TheresaMilstein on Twitter.

@Theresa Milstein on Facebook

#ReliveMoment or #TimeandCircumstance

Winners will be announced on April 5, 2017

 

Writing

Rock Skiing

“And how stands the city [on a hill] on this winter night?…After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.

— From President Ronald Reagan’ Farewell Address, 1989

 

Of the many things I don’t understand about the Executive Order banning refugees, there is this: how can you look at a photograph of a family fleeing Syria and say that they cannot come here? It is easier to discriminate against people you don’t know. Is it possible that President Trump has never met a Muslim, never met a refugee? I doubt it. I think he’s just racist.

I, on the other hand, have met Muslims and refugees. Many of them. I have worked with various refugee populations on and off for most of my adult life. In 1994, my first year out of college, I lived in Denver for 5 months.

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While there I held an assortment of paid and volunteer jobs. I worked as a teacher’s aide at a day care center, and did some babysitting on the side. I wrote and edited articles for Colorado Women News magazine. I wrote a grant proposal for a group of lawyers doing pro bono work on affordable housing. And I was a tutor for a “talk time” conversation practice group for ESL students.

Our talk time group met in a dilapidated classroom of an old building in downtown Denver. The students were refugees and immigrants from Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America, Mexico. Each session, we divided into groups and were given conversation topics. At the start of our first meeting, the lead teacher made a skiing analogy. Here in Colorado, she explained, the snow is plentiful and forgiving. The sun shines over 300 days of the year.

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The best skiers are the ones who learn to ski in other parts of the country, like New England. There, you ski in unforgiving cold. It’s common to ski on ice, or encounter rocks that poke up out of the snow.

 

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“Learning English is like skiing on rocks,” she said. “Everything is easy after this.”

One conversation prompt that I remember is when we discussed the phrase “pet peeve.” I was partnered with a teenaged girl who’d recently arrived from Vietnam. She was in the advanced class, and seemed like she’d been rock skiing for awhile. I struggled to explain what a “pet peeve” meant – something unimportant that bothers you. I thought of the two men I shared a house with, friends of a college friend of mine.

“After they get a dish out of the cupboard, they leave the cupboard door open. It drives me crazy.”

“Oh,” she said. “Like when my sister leaves a light on after she leaves the room. I hate that. It’s a waste of electricity!”

Did we talk about other pet peeves, so that my student understood they weren’t limited to housekeeping irritations? I don’t remember. I do remember that Talk Time volunteer was my favorite of the positions I held while living in Denver. I loved the energy exuded by everyone in that class. They were so excited to learn English well enough that they could get jobs, go to school, conduct the various transactions of their new American lives. As a volunteer, I knew little about the situations that had led them to come to the United States, and nothing about all of the hoops they’d jumped through just to be allowed to board the plane.

I wonder where that woman is now – does she still live in Denver? Did she become a citizen? Does she still have family in Vietnam, or anyone trying hard to get to the U.S.? Maybe she has children, and admonishes them to turn off the lights when they leave the room. Maybe they’ve become skiers there in Colorado, where the snow is champagne powder and the sun shines all winter long.

[photo courtesy of UNHCR.org]

 

Book Publication, GUTS, Vine Leaves Press, Writing

Publication News!

How long have I wanted to write the (inelegant) sentence my book is being published? Perhaps since I wrote the first words of what would eventually become my memoir, GUTS, 7 years ago. Perhaps since the age of nine, when I filled in “a writer” next to the question printed in a fill-in-the-blanks book I owned, what do you want to be when you grow up? However I do the math, the result is the same: I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve just signed a contract for publication of GUTS by Vine Leaves Press!

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[Melborne, the virtual home of Vine Leaves Press.]

Vine Leaves and I found each other in an unexpected way, or at least it was a surprise to me. After many moons of querying agents and editors, I decided on a whim to participate in a Twitter pitching party.

I know. I’d never heard of one either.

On a designated day (6/9/16, in my case), agents and editors scan Twitter for worthy projects. Authors distill their book synopsis down to 140 characters, add the appropriate hashtag (#PitMad), and hope that someone spots their awesome tweet and requests a submission. Although I have a Twitter account, I’m really more of a Facebook girl, and had to get my friend Marin – an excellent writer and pro-Twitterer – to help me compose my tweets. Here is the tweet that caught the Vine Leaves editors’ attention: “BRAIN ON FIRE meets TRUTH AND BEAUTY in a story of friendship, a mysterious illness, colostomies, death, and a triathlon.

From the originally requested excerpt came a request for the full manuscript. And one evening in late August I got the email offering me publication. My face looked something like a paler, older version of this as I read the email, sitting home alone, my kids already asleep:

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Yesterday I sent the signed contract, and now I’m on my way. I’ll start working with a Vine Leaves editor in the Spring of 2017, and things will clip along from there, I have no doubt. I’ve spoken to several Vine Leaves authors and read some of their books and I’m honored to be in their company. Look, here I am, listed at the bottom underneath the gorgeous covers of the already-published and soon-to-be-published books: http://www.vineleavespress.com/books.html

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I think the press will be a wonderful home for GUTS. I’m grateful to acquisitions editor Peter Snell, publisher Jessica Bell, and the whole Vine Leaves team for their enthusiasm for GUTS.

Last night I was at the aforementioned Marin’s launch for her excellent young adult book, BLEED, BLISTER, PUKE, and PURGE: The Dirty Secrets Behind Early American Medicine. While waiting in the signing line, I was introduced to a woman. “Sarah has a book coming out in 2018.”

“Me too,” I said. Which felt weird. But also awesome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing

Tin House 2016: Love & Kindness Edition

“Fill your pen with love or don’t bother picking it up.”

— Luis Alberto Urrea

How not to blog: about once a year, post overlong entries with way too much text and barely any photographs. With apologies to you, dear readers, here comes a download of my time last week at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop. Though this was my 3rd time at Tin House, it was very different from my previous experiences. In fact, it wasn’t like any other gathering of writers I’ve ever attended. Wordy is the only method I have to begin to do it justice.

Tin House assembles an impressive set of faculty, and as a result has gotten more selective each year about the students they accept. While this might result in a more competitive vibe overall, I found the opposite to be true. None of the faculty needed to prove themselves as writers, and that characteristic radiated out to the entire group of 200-plus attendees.

For the workshop part of the week, we gathered each morning in pre-assigned groups of 12 to work with a member of the faculty. I decided to give fiction a try. My workshop leader was Jess Walter, a writer whose work I’ve admired for awhile. I met Jess the last time I attended Tin House, and based on our conversation and the excellent craft talk he gave about narrative time, I had a hunch he’d be a good teacher.

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Remind me to always trust my hunches.

Jess was a stellar teacher, leading our group with warmth and generosity. He is hilarious, and we laughed a lot in workshop, but we also had deep discussions about each of our stories. He treated us as a writing peer, sharing craft and ideas for improving our stories and even giving us access to his awesome music collection while we spent 10 minutes each morning writing. (We WROTE at a writing conference! Believe it or not, this is unusual.)

And then there were my workshop-mates, an exceptional group of writers, critiquers, and humans. I feel like I won the workshop group lottery. It wasn’t just Jess who was generous and insightful. It was everyone. Our nametags said “Team Jess Walter.” We wore our badges proudly, and we quickly became besotted with one another. Someone quoted The Big Lebowski during my critique. Anytime there’s a Coen brothers reference related to my work, no matter how tenuous the connection, I consider that to be a successful workshop.

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Team Jess (clockwise from L): TJ, Gabe, Jill, Marrie, Jess, Michele, Annabel, Robert, me, Colleen, Earl.

If every other moment of the conference had been terrible, I still would have been glad I went. But the workshop was just the beginning of the awesome. Every afternoon, the faculty take turns giving talks on the craft of writing. On Day 2 of the conference, we settled into our auditorium seats as Kiese Laymon took the stage, having no idea what was in store for us. He read a powerful piece (an adaptation of this one) about sexual violence. Then he posed a question to the audience: “What is the responsibility of the American literary worker in this age of terror?”

For the next 30 minutes, people began to answer his question: what do we read, what do we write, who gets to go to literary gatherings? On and on it went, the question rippling out to the rest of the conference, and still ringing loudly in my ears over a week later and a few hundred miles away.

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As the week went on, I noticed 2 of the themes introduced during Kiese’s mind-blowing talk got repeated throughout the week in the talks, the readings, and of course in the workshop: love and kindness. Steve Almond talked about writing our emotions, and had us create work about our childhood crushes.

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Sharon Olds and Jericho Brown, gorgeous people, gorgeous writers, gorgeous voices. When Terry Gross retires and I take over as Fresh Air host, Olds and Brown will be my first guests, appearing together. They’ll have a conversation, and I won’t have to say anything.

Olds read a series of unconventional odes, including “Ode to My Hymen” that were both funny and gorgeous. I noticed that all 12 of the Team Jess Walter stories were about love – romantic, familial, love gone stale and the love between friends. Luis Alberto Urrea delivered a talk to close out the conference, a love letter to us in which he said, among other beautiful phrases, the one quoted at the top of this post.

“Make great work its own reward,” Jess told us near the end of the week. He was telling his publishing story, which included 7 years of rejections before his first short story was accepted by a journal. He talked about being happy for our friends when they publish, about being gracious. “It’s much more important to be a kind person than a successful writer.” Look at all of the quotes I have to pin above my desk.

A few years ago, I attended a writing conference that didn’t go very well. I put my memoir away for 6 months and wrote very little during that time. On the last day at Tin House 2016, I was exhausted. I averaged 5-6 hours of sleep a night all week, my brain buzzing at each end of my slumber, and by Saturday afternoon I was toasted. In dire need of a nap, I headed toward my AirBnB. As I walked I looked to my right at the quad and the light slanting through the trees. My need for sleep was overpowered by a need to write. I veered right and spent the next 2 hours writing.

I arrived at Tin House as a nonfiction writer, and a week later I left brimming with ideas for how to turn my story into a novel.

How about that?

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Writing

Twice Sold Tales

Six years ago today my dear friend Beth died. Every year since, I have approached this day with a sense of dread, the last week of her life in the forefront of my mind and a huge weight on my chest. The day itself is usually not as bad as the lead-up. I usually do something in honor of Beth, a little ritual or a special activity.

This year, though, I thought little about the date or what it marked until today. Maybe it’s because the time that has passed – 6 years, almost my daughter Helen’s entire life. Maybe it’s just other thoughts crowding my brain this week, a deadline for a writing workshop, a summer camp snafu for Caleb, an upcoming family vacation. For whatever reason, I barely thought about it until this morning, while I was out on a bike ride.

I have my first triathlon in over 2 years coming up in a couple of months, and this marked my first training ride in that long. (For the record, training rides for me mean that I ride a little harder and/or longer than I normally would, and reward myself with lunch after). I was smiling for most of the ride, when I thought about Beth, when I thought about my upcoming race. I thought about how I’m still not that fast on the bike and probably never will be, but look how far I’ve come since my surgery recovery when I was barely able to walk to the end of the block and back.

The sun was out and I could see glimpses of Mount Baker on my way up the Boulevard and Mount Rainier on my way back. Beth’s ashes were scattered at Rainier, and she was in my thoughts especially much as I gazed at The Mountain.

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(Photo by Orin Blomberg courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

Now it’s overcast and some melancholy has set in as I sit at a café. If Beth would tolerate any memorializing of her today, she would insist that we steer our thoughts away from her last moments, and instead share happy stories. Here is mine. I miss you, Beth.

On my 26th birthday, I received a card from Beth. Though she wasn’t a material person, she was fond of gift-giving, usually a small decorative item she bought from a local artist or fair-trade store. She wrapped her gifts in plain brown paper and made her cards by hand. This card, two years into our friendship, was a note written on the back side of a form letter she fished out of the recycling bin at work. A run-on sentence written diagonally in her loopy script takes up the entire back side of the letter. Onto the bottom she rubber-stamped a zebra, her favorite animal.

Beth talked constantly, an animated monologue with long tangents.

“But, I digress,” she’d say, then circle back to her original point.

The birthday card represents a Beth monologue in miniature, a verbal declaration recorded on paper. Ok, she began, here’s the thing. She went on to tell me that she’d planned to give me a birthday present even though I told her I didn’t want one. The card was a story of her attempt to get me the gift. She alluded to an argument with a city bus driver, among other obstacles she faced. Finally, near the bottom of the page, she explained the present: a gift certificate to Twice Sold Tales, a used bookstore near our office. Only the store didn’t sell gift certificates, so she wanted to take me book shopping. She concluded the letter, It’ll be more fun together anyway.

I don’t know which title I chose, but I remember the trip to the bookstore. After work, we drove the half-mile to the commercial district of the Fremont neighborhood. We parked by the Baptist church and walked down the hill.

It was April, early evening, warm enough for Twice Sold Tales’ door to be propped open. Jazz from speakers in the adjacent vinyl record shop filtered into the bookstore. The lone employee, a man our age, mumbled hello when we stepped inside. Incense burned in a glass vase next to the register, covering whatever musty smell emanated from the books.

I took my time. Upstairs, downstairs, back up again. Beth and I were the only customers in the store. We scanned the shelves separately, then together, searching for the perfect book. The narrow room and sloped ceilings made the upstairs feel like an attic. It grew dark as we shopped, and the employee walked to the corners of each room, flicking on lamps.

“Get something I like,” she said. “I’m planning to borrow it when you’re done.”

Did I choose a novel? Short stories? Classic? Contemporary? I don’t recall. I only remember the creak of the stairs as we climbed to the attic. Kneeling next to Beth on the dingy carpet, peering at the shelves like we were much younger versions of ourselves digging in grandmother’s trunk. Standing at the register next to Beth as she handed money to the man, then the book to me.

“Happy Birthday,” she said, putting her arm around my shoulder. We wedged ourselves through the doorway arm in arm, and climbed the hill to Beth’s car in the dark.

Writing

The Return of the Tri-Ostolete

It turns out that, even if you run slowly, you can mess up your foot. And even if you stop running, and cut down on other on-your-feet activities, and go to physical therapy, and acupuncture, and change your diet, and have your own plasma injected into your foot, it can continue to stay messed up. For 3 years. If your main source of exercise motivation has stemmed from racing in triathlons, what do you do?

Step 1: go for your free consultation with a personal trainer at your gym. Choose to meet with Paige. Paige is awesome, will clearly become a champion of yours even though she’s not the rah-rah type. Don’t exchange high-fives with Paige after a difficult set. That’s not her thing, and it’s certainly not yours. Instead, sign up for more sessions. Paige will get you hooked on strength training. Paige will tailor your workouts so they don’t aggravate your injured foot. Paige will show you that, despite your 3 abdominal surgeries and your colostomy, you can make your core strong again. She will teach you the word proprioception, your body’s sense of its position and movement in space.  In her patient, gentle way will tell you yours is poor. You can still learn the moves, though, despite this flaw. Another obstacle overcome.

Step 2: learn of a new surgical technique that might help your foot. Fork over more money. Undergo the procedure, which involves sucking the badness out of your heel: calcified bone, damaged tendon. Keep going to the gym with the boot on your foot. Feel badass.

Step 3: Receive a letter from your ostomy nurse, Laura, another champion. A group of people with ostomies are getting together to do a triathlon in August. Team Ostomy United. Would you like to join? Even though your doctor told you you could start running again, you’re not ready yet. But you can walk. There’s a sprint-distance option. 5 kilometers. You can walk that. Visit Ostomy United’s Facebook page. Learn another new word: tri-ostolete. Think: that’s me.  Read stories of cancer survivors who just signed up for their first endurance race. Cry. Register.

Step 4: Tell Paige about your race plans. In response, Paige declares on the spot that she will sign up too. Even though she’s a runner, a trainer, a badass, she’ll walk the run course with you. It will be her first triathlon. Argue about who will be slower, who will have to wait for whom. Up your exercise routine. You’ve got a race to train for again. Finally.

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You, Lavaman Triathlon, 3/24/13

GUTS, IBD

Freaky Friday

Today is Friday the 13th, a day that can cause worry among superstitious people. I’m kind of superstitious, and plenty of things cause me anxiety, but not this. My birthday is on April 13th, and I turned 13 on Friday the 13th, so I’ve always liked the number. Friday the 13ths have always felt special to me. Lucky.

Except for that one time, seventeen years ago.

March 13, 1998 was also a Friday. I know this because I looked it up recently while doing research for my memoir, GUTS. In March of 1998 I was 26 years old and 5 months into treatment for Crohn’s Disease. I’d had a flare-up, a common complication of Crohn’s. On Friday the 13th I had a CT scan and went home to await the results. My 3rd bite of dinner, my first food all day, was on its way to my mouth when the phone rang.

“You have an abscess,” my doctor said, breathless, like she’d read the radiology report and run up a flight of stairs to call me. I thought I detected a note of excitement in her voice: Finally my mild, hard-to-treat Crohn’s Disease was asserting itself in some identifiable way.

“You need to go to the hospital. Immediately.”

So Wiley and I went to the Emergency Room. They brought me to a curtained-off area and told me to put on a hospital gown. After 3 failed attempts to find a good vein in my arm, the nurse inserted a port into the back of my hand where an IV would be placed when I went upstairs for surgery. If I went upstairs. We waited and waited. In order to stay warm, I’d put my jeans back on underneath my hospital gown like a three-year-old who wanted to wear pants and a twirly dress to school.

Two hours after we arrived, the surgical resident stood in the curtained-off area, peering at my CT scan on the film reader.

“I guess that’s an abscess,” he said. He was handsome: short, early thirties, with a shaved head and frameless glasses. He turned to me, taking in my gown-and-jeans ensemble, my arms crossed for warmth.

“You look too good to be here.” It sounded like a pick-up line, and I blushed. But it wasn’t flattery, it was doctor-speak. He meant: I’m not much older than you, but I’ve been through 4 years of medical school, and 6 years of residency, and now I’m the Chief Surgical Resident of a busy urban hospital and in my experience when someone needs surgery they look like they need it, if you know what I mean. You are too far from death’s door. You don’t even have a fever, for Pete’s sake.

It turned out that he was right to be skeptical. The Crohn’s was a misdiagnosis. The abscess wasn’t an abscess. It was a rare, benign tumor called a teratoma. It would take a new set of doctors to figure this out. A year and half after that ER visit, I’d have surgery to remove the teratoma, then another when it came back 5 years later. Now I’m one of over a million Americans with an ostomy (a gut-related and GUTS-related fact I also recently looked up).

This Friday the 13th of March, I have different plans for the evening. Wiley and I are hosting a table at “People Eating and Giving,” the annual fundraiser for the Bureau of Fearless Ideas, a writing center for kids. I recently joined the BFI board, and I am excited to be at the event in that role for the first time. The evening will mark another first: I’ll be wearing a dress for the first time since my colostomy surgery. As you can imagine, clothes shopping with a colostomy can be tricky (as I describe in this essay), and dresses particularly challenging to wear. Thanks to a recent purchase of a magical concealing undergarment, though, I can wear a dress without anyone noticing a plastic disk protruding from my mid-section. I never thought of putting on a dress as an act of triumph, but I bet that’s how I’ll feel.  Triumphant.  Liberated.  Maybe even fearless.

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Some BFI regulars, being fearless

Writing

B in the World

I am pleased to host my blog’s first-ever guest, children’s author Sharon Mentyka. It feels entirely fitting to have Sharon as my first guest. In addition to being a terrific children’s author, she is a designer at Partners in Design, and put together my website (looks fab, no?). I really admire Sharon’s recently published children’s chapter book, “B in the World.”

b_cover_website

Here is the book’s description:

B and his friends Rudy and Grace are super excited to be starting second grade. But when they find out that Ms. Hitchings will be their new teacher, everything changes. Then, to make things worse, Mia, the meanest, bossiest girl that New Horizons School has ever known, arrives. When B and Mia both decide they want to try out for the leading part in the spring play, B wonders how he’ll ever survive the year.

A chapter book for children ages 5 and up and the people who love them, “B in the World” takes an open-hearted, kids-eyed view of what it means to be “different” and celebrates children for who they are meant to be, not how others want to label them.

I’ve read it to my 7-year-old son, shared it with our school librarian, and now I want to share it with you!  Below, Sharon answers my questions about this powerful and important story:

  1. Why did you decide to write this story?

It was kind of a happy convergence of a number of different things. I had been wanting to write a story for early elementary students when a classmate in my MFA program at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts mentioned that the son of a friend was going through a lot of pain being bullied at school because he didn’t dress or behave like most of the other boys. I realized that hiding who we really are from others at a young age can only lead to pain and grief later in life—not only for ourselves but for those who love us. The whole idea clicked when I remembered how one of my daughter’s teachers (who became the model for Mr. J in the book) taught his students empathy for each other in those early years when friends can help or hurt us so much.

  1. How long did it take to write it?

Quite a few years, actually! The idea for B was born in 2009 but I knew I needed to do a lot of research first—reading about child development and talking to parents and teachers. And I needed to decide how openly I was going to be presenting B’s gender fluid nature because I knew I would be tackling a sensitive topic. That meant more connecting and talking to folks in the gender diversity community to be sure I was representing concepts accurately. And even though the book’s message of empathy and acceptance needed to appeal to parents, it couldn’t be preachy. The story needed to be an entertaining one for kids. And that took time.

  1. What do you hope readers come away with the book thinking about or talking about?

Many children, especially once they start school, struggle with being somehow perceived as “different”—either because of how they like to dress, or how they look, or simply because of what they like to do. Some of the challenges B faces in this story are gender-connected; some are just kid-related. I would love it if the book can open up conversations about situations like these. Why do we sometimes fear differences? What does it mean to be true to yourself and why you should be proud of it? Why is our first reaction to sometimes to laugh at someone else when we feel nervous? Talking about these kinds of feelings and situations can really help children—and adults—grow more empathy.

  1. Are there other books (for children or adults) written on this topic?

There are quite a few good picture books out there, which I think feel safer to some folks. My Princess Boy by Cheryl Kilodavis and Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT? by Eileen Kiernan-Johnson come to mind. Then the topic picks up again in middle-grade and YA books where gender fluidity becomes more common. And for adults, there might not be anything better than the books and essays by Jennifer Finney Boylan (www.jenniferboylan.net)

But I identified a real gap in the early elementary years, where fitting in and bullying can be critical issues. That’s one of the reasons I decided to write B’s story as a chapter book—those years span a critical time period when parents read to their children and then the children pick up those same books when they begin to read themselves. So there can be a lot of impact there. I have a fiction and nonfiction reading list that folks can download from the Resources section of B’s website if they’re interested.

  1. Where can people (parents and kids) go for more information or support around issues of bullying and/or gender fluidity?

There are so many good resources out there. Gender Spectrum (www.genderspectrum.org) and Gender Diversity (www.genderdiversity.org) are both great, comprehensive support sites that offer a lot of information for families with young children who are exploring gender roles. For teaching empathy and acceptance, Welcoming Schools, which is a program run by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation (www.welcomingschools.org) is where I would send folks. They have some wonderful resources on how to be sensitive and also offer simple answers parents can give to young children’s questions about gender.

  1. Why did you decide to self-publish?

That decision really came about because I ran into a few dead-ends going the traditional publishing route. Children’s chapter books follow a bit of a formula and diverging from that model is difficult if you’re not an established author. But I knew from my research there was an audience out there for a book like this, I just knew it, so I decided to tap into that energy. And it’s been a great learning experience as well as very rewarding for me. I’ve received nothing but supportive emails from parents and librarians all over the county, telling me how much a book like this is needed.

  1. In your acknowledgements you mention 2nd graders as beta-readers. Great idea! Any feedback they gave you that was especially helpful?

The kids are really a reality check for me. For B, I read early drafts to several groups of second- and third-graders at a Seattle elementary school and also at a tutoring center where I volunteer. Kids this age have no problem telling you whether they like or dislike characters, or if situations in the story ring true. Are the characters like kids they might know or want to know? Does the language and voice feel right? When I finish reading a chapter, if the kids ask me to read more, then I know I’m on the right track.

  1. What is your next project?

I have two stories currently in progress: one is a graphic novel that centers around a boy who uses art to heal a crisis in his family, and the other is a early middle grade historical novel set in the Pennsylvania coal mines of the 1940s. I’m also looking for a home for two completed middle-grade novels.

  1. Anything else you want to tell us?

Gender identity may feel like the next frontier, but it really is a chance for all of us to practice empathy and acceptance. Given all the global, environmental and political challenges our children will likely be facing, it may be one of the few things where parents can truly make a difference by giving their children the skills and mindset to be who they were truly meant to be, and to know that those choices will be okay.

Thank you, Sharon, for sharing your thoughts about “B in the World.”

This Friday, March 13th is the book launch party for “B in the World” at Secret Garden Books in Seattle.  If you live in the area I encourage you to attend and bring your favorite kiddos!  And everyone, here is information about where you can get a copy of “B in the World.”

Writing

Writers Who Lunch

There are many things I could fill this blog post with, my first one in 4 months. I could tell you about the marathon writing sessions I’ve had to finish a major draft of my memoir, GUTS. I could tell you that it looks like I’m a couple of months away from having it ready to send to agents. Maybe you’d like to hear about some of the essays I’ve had published since September, here, here, and here, and about the honorable mention I got in this award. Or I could go on at length about the book proposal I’ve started writing, a business plan/grant proposal-esque document meant to convince agents and editors that, of all the projects they could take on, mine is The One.

But what I really want to talk about is my lunch last week with Stewart O’Nan.

Okay, there were other people there, 2 dozen or so, and Stewart himself didn’t actually eat anything. Instead, he spoke about writing, and read from his new book, WEST OF SUNSET. I have been an O’Nan fan for awhile now, and I was excited a few months ago when I learned he would be featured at the author luncheon series at one of my favorite local bookstores, Third Place Books in Ravenna. WEST OF SUNSET is a novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s years living and writing in Hollywood. I recently re-read THE GREAT GATSBY for a writing class, so the novel’s subject intrigued me, but I would have gone regardless. Most any subject matter becomes engrossing in a good author’s hands.

One thing that O’Nan said that stuck with me was when he talked about doing research for his nonfiction book, CIRCUS FIRE, about the Barnum & Bailey Circus fire in Hartford in 1944, when a circus tent caught fire with 8,000 people trapped inside.

“When I interviewed survivors,” O’Nan told us, “they talked about their families, their friends. Those were the stories they told me.” He repeated this later in his talk, when someone asked him about where he gets his story ideas.

“Ever since I wrote Circus Fire,” he said, “I write stories where the characters’ main concerns are the people closest to them.”

It may sound like a small thing, maybe even an obvious thing, but sitting there in the audience, on a break from writing a dry document that tries to explain a story I’ve spent the last 5 years writing, I found it really inspiring. Right, I thought to myself. The people closest to us. They are who we write about when we write nonfiction. And when we write fiction, we write about who our characters care about too.

I feel fortunate to live in such a literary-rich community, where there are plenty of opportunities to get inspiration when I step away from my writing desk. Or hobble away, as the case in these days, since I just had foot surgery.

But that’s another story.