A Time to Rest

sabbatical-mug-300x260The word “sabbatical” comes from the same root as the word “sabbath.” Sabbatical means “of the sabbath,” and Sabbath means “rest.” Which is what I am going to be doing for at least the remainder of this year, possibly longer.

I’ve been writing stories since I could hold a pen. Really. My mom had some stories I wrote at the age of maybe ten, all about Ollie the Elephant and my imaginary friend Paula. (Not to be confused with the later real-life friend also known as Paula.) For decades, I wrote nonfiction in the form of newspaper and magazine articles and press releases for WORK and I wrote fiction for FUN.

Around ten years ago, I decided to get serious about fiction. I just wanted to see if I could finish a full-length novel. I did. Then I wanted to see if I could sell it to a big-name publisher. I didn’t. Then I decided it would be nice even to sell it to a small publisher. I did. But the experience with the small publisher was disillusioning to say the least — three changes of editor in the course of editing, a last-minute publication date that allowed no advance time for promotion and a poor job of promoting it once it was published. I started a second book and pitched it to a very big-name publisher  when they held a writing contest. As originally written, the book was a spy adventure with a touch of romance called The Capri Caper. An editor at Very Big Name Publishing took a liking and convinced me to take the characters out of that plot and turn it into a steamy romance. I did. After months of round-the-clock writing and revising to their specifications, Very Big Name Publisher ultimately rejected the novel anyway and I wound up going back to the less-than-satisfying small publisher for an even less satisfying editorial experience than I’d had the first time around.

Then the self-publishing wave hit. I decided it might be cool to get my rights to both books back, get new editors, new book covers and do my own promo. It was fun. The books actually made a bit of money this time. One even made the Amazon Best-Seller List for a little while.

Since that time, about three years ago now, I’ve written and published a couple of short stories and contributed to a cookbook. I’ve started at least three different “chick lit” style novels and failed to complete any of them.

Meanwhile, my nonfiction writing career has picked up enormously in the last year — I’ve been writing half of every issue of a local glossy mag that gets distributed in a major newspaper. I’ve also done a fair amount of PR work for a couple of local clients.

And for the last year, I’ve been struggling to help my son, Dr. Sheldon Cooper as he is called on this blog, transition to adulthood. It is going very so-so at this point. He is still a good kid, still mostly happy, BUT…. And the list of “buts” keeps growing: he rejected offers from two very good local colleges for a major he seemed very sure about in favor of going to community college. Once there he changed his major four times in the first semester until a counselor pretty much ordered him to put down “General Studies” and his father ordered him to not change it again at all if he wants us to continue footing the bill. He has drifted away from a lot of  hobbies he had in high school and refuses to consider even a minor in Music, his one area of true giftedness that could help pay his tuition in the form of scholarships, not to mention leading to a fulfilling career in something he loves and at which he excels. He’s developed a serious and unexpected case of stage fright.

Frankly, life with Dr. Cooper has ever been a roller coaster, but it’s always a worry when the car takes a downhill turn, as it seems to be doing this year. I foresee another season wherein I spend almost every free minute getting him organized, boosting his spirits, cheering him out of his dark moments. A season filled with visits to doctors, counselors, coaches, psychologists, acupuncturists, even priests, trying to get him to Focus! Cheer up! Have confidence! It is an exhausting, time-consuming place to be and it is a place I come back to with him every few years. Many parents of special needs kids or kids with developmental challenges know this place as “Holland,” from the Emily Perle Kingsley essay “Welcome to Holland.” And indeed, Holland is not a bad place to be. But we wouldn’t want to, say, let him take the wrong train entirely and wind up leaving Holland for Outer Slobovia or something even less appealing.

So I will put aside much of my self again and make one last push to try and help him acquire the confidence, the optimism, and the social skills he will need to succeed at an independent life without me someday. I will fit that around the newspaper, magazine  and PR writing that pays so much better than novel writing now (although ironically it was the opposite just three years ago). I will fit it around that stuff because it’s what I do. The Boy Who Was Autistic eventually graduated from a mainstream private high school with a 3.6 GPA and a bright future. I believe he can still find that future, but he needs a few more years of coaxing and coaching and maybe even a little hand-holding to do so.

But the coaxing and coaching of Dr. Cooper takes a lot of time and mental energy away from things like novel-writing. And then there are all the market changes in the novel-writing world. Self-publishing was fun, but I’m pretty burnt out on the whole phenomenon now. The market is flooded with new self-pubbed authors who have no professional background whatsoever in writing or editing and just hope to hit it rich “like that 50 Shades writer.” Unfortunately, the market is definitely not flooded with an equal influx of new readers, leading to entire sets of full-length books being sold for as little as $0.99. You can see, then, why novel-writing isn’t even on the back burner for me right now. It’s in the freezer, cats and kitties. A freezer in the basement. In the back. And the stairs to the basement are missing.

The bottom line, cats and kitties, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now is: no new chick noir novel in 2015. Probably not in 2016 either. Even if I get back to novel writing at some point in the future, I suspect it won’t be chick lit. Maybe it will be horror or steampunk or my old first love, science fiction. Maybe it will be a weepy women’s novel or an edgy action thriller. There’s a good chance it will be something for kids or teens, since I’m reading and enjoying more and more of that stuff these days.  But all that is in the vague future. Right now, the focus is on Dr. Cooper and my freelance business.

There will probably be book review posts in the future, and there may be some short stories and another cookbook contribution coming in the next year, but I don’t see a novel coming soon. And trying to pretend I even want to write another one right now has become another thing just making me tired and stressing me out. And so this post: a confession and an acclamation: Lynn Reynolds the novelist is on sabbatical.

The White Man’s Burden Just Never Stops

white-mans-problems.w250Funniest quote about books this week  (or possibly ever) has to go to Michael Wolff of USA Today. . .

In a recent article, Wolff bemoans the fate of middle-aged white guy Kevin Morris who, despite being a successful entertainment lawyer, couldn’t get a book contract with a mainstream publisher. The article goes on at length to talk about what a hard thing it is to be a white guy in the entertainment industry these days (?!) and how little entertainment is geared toward such folk.

Because you know, Jack Reacher, Tom Clancy, Liam Neeson, Duck Dynasty, football  — apparently none of that counts. Although if those things are not for middle-aged men, I can’t imagine who they’re actually for.

And if you’re grousing about wanting a more literary level to your middle-aged white guy entertainment, what about Updike, Cheever, Jonathan Franzen, and almost any freaking short story published in The New Yorker? What about the hundreds of years of accumulated writing and work that has already been written by and aimed at middle-aged white guys? I guess Mr. Wolff has already read all of that.

Now I have no idea of the quality of Kevin Morris’ writing. I haven’t read his book yet. And I have to confess that as a non-middle-aged-white-man, it’s not at the top of my list. My quibble is not with the quality of his writing, the state of entertainment for middle-aged men, or his feeling of being marginalized.

In fact, I applaud Morris for doing what so many other successful writers of all ages and colors (myself included) are now doing — self-publishing his collection of stories, White Man’s Problems. My quibble is not with Morris at all, but rather with this truly priceless line, found near the end of Michael Wolff’s bafflingly outraged column about this book:

“Amazon’s legion of self-published authors is perhaps just more evidence of our infinitely fractured culture. Too many stories is just another sign of a broken world.”

That’s right, the same columnist complaining about the lack of representation for middle-aged white men in literature and praising the brilliance of Kevin Morris’ self-published book is the same columnist suggesting it’s a BAD THING that absolutely anyone can now self-publish a collection of short stories whenever they so desire.

Wait, what?

Telling more stories is bad? The fact that human beings have stories to tell and new ways to share them is a BAD THING?! A sign of a broken world?

If a burning desire to tell your story and the ability to share it with anyone is a sign of disaster and brokenness, I guess it’s clearly been one long downhill slide since the first caveman picked up his brush. And frankly, if more people wanting to tell stories is a sign of a broken world, then I’d be happy to live in one that’s crumbling to pieces.

Rant done. Thanks for the laugh, USA Today.

A Great Man Passes

Leo Bretholz

“Bitterness destroys the person who is bitter…. You cannot feel bitter. You must feel determined.” ~ Leo Bretholz

Leo Bretholz died last night. He was 93 years old, so it should come as no surprise. That he lived this long to spread his message about the horrors of the Holocaust is miraculous in itself. Many obituaries will rightly talk about the great contribution he made as a living historian, tirelessly visiting schools to educate young people about the Nazi genocide and about the Resistance movement in which he played a crucial part. Right to the last day of his life, he was still working  to see that justice would continue to be done in memory of the millions who perished at the hands of the Nazis. In fact, he had been scheduled to testify today before the Maryland House of Delegates, urging them to support a reparations bill that was directed at a French rail company contracted to construct a new portion of the state’s light rail line. I hope the world recognizes the great work he did to raise awareness about the dangers of racism, nationalism, all of those -isms that say “Our -ism is better than yours. Your -ism should not even exist.”

A lot of much better writers than me are going to talk about his midnight swim across the River Sauer to escape Austria as it fell to the Nazis. They will talk about his daring escape from a cattle car bound for Auschwitz, his great friendship with the nuns who helped nurse him back to health, and his work with the Compagnons de France, the Jewish Resistance Group.

I will talk instead about the good humor and patience of a man who worked at a bookstore over thirty years ago. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for me, the bookstore was right around the corner from the restaurant where my mother worked. I was in my early teens, I think, but she didn’t like to leave me at home alone all day. Sometimes she’d send me down the street to the delightful Sobus family, a stereotypical Catholic family of about ten kids. There was always music and noise and good food there, but she didn’t like to take advantage of them, so on other occasions, she’d tell me to come down to work with her and “go find something to do in the neighborhood.”

What I found to do was pester Leo.

I suppose the first few times the chubby girl with thick glasses and weird hair showed up, he wondered if I was shoplifting. But I always found some bargain book to buy and he must have been able to sense a fellow lover of the written word. He began to chat with me each time I came into the store. I told him I thought I might like to be a writer someday, and he said he was thinking about writing a book too. He recommended books for me, introducing me to the wonderful epics of Leon Uris in particular and to many works of history and poetry. After I read Mila 18, Uris’ tale of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Leo began to tell me his own story of survival.

I was, and still am, in awe of him.

He was always kind to me, always had time to talk to me. My mom came into the store to drag me home one day, apologizing profusely, but he brushed it off and told her I was no trouble. To Mom and me, he was just a nice man who worked around the corner from her. Only gradually did we discover what a huge force he was in raising awareness about the Holocaust. Eventually, my mother moved on to another job and so did Leo. I don’t really remember which of them left first, but I know that we lost touch for many years.

In the summer of 2001, my husband and I moved our family a fair distance from Baltimore, where I’d met Leo so long ago. Mom came along. She was retired now and slowing down a bit, so we moved her into an in-law apartment in our home. One day a couple of years later, we were at the local library when Mom saw a poster.

“Look, it’s Leo!” she cried.

The poster announced a talk and book signing by Leo Bretholz, author of Leap Into Darkness. It was a memoir. “He finally wrote his book!”

We decided to go to his talk. We thought it was important to support him, because sometimes book signings aren’t that well attended. (I hadn’t written any books of my own yet, but I’d heard about book signings where no one buys and everyone just wants to know where the bathroom is.) But Leo had spent decades sharing his story with so many people, and taking time to listen to their own stories, no matter how small. So we needn’t have worried about attendance at his signing. It was standing room only, and the line to purchase his book and have it signed was an impressive sight. We waited until almost everyone had gone, because Mom couldn’t really stand for long periods anymore–all those years on her feet as a waitress had taken their toll. Now remember what a busy life this man had lived, and all the important things that had happened to him, and the fact that he hadn’t seen my mother and I in nearly two decades.

When we stood to have him sign my mother’s copy of the book, he paused and stared at us for a long time.

“I know you,” he said to my mother. And then: “Cathy?”

They embraced and we reminisced for a little while, wishing him good luck with his book. I told Leo I hadn’t written any books yet, but he assured me I still had time to get started.

And so I went home and I did.

He had that kind of effect on people.

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