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Big, Scary Things

The request was the type I would instantly say yes to: I’d like you to write for us. Steady gig, decent money, but most important of all, an editor I really enjoyed working with. And yet, my gut screamed: NO!!!

I thought about it for a day — the gut sometimes needs to be checked — and then replied: There is a good chance I’ll regret this, but I’m going to say no. I explained why — that I am starting the new memoir-writing business we’d talked about, that I’m nervous but I have to just go for it. I hit “send” and instantly, I regretted it. Until I received her response. The first line read:

“This is the time for big, scary things!”

The good editors have this knack for cutting through to the heart of a story.

Big and Scary. I thought about this a lot. Big and scary sounds so BIG and SCARY! But then I realized — I’m no stranger to these things. Charging toward those challenges, instead of shrinking from them, is likely why I’m not sitting in some suburban Detroit high-rise writing instruction manuals. (I’ll explain that later.) In fact, if I think about it, and I have, big and scary is a recurring theme in my life.

At age 13, my guidance counselor suggested I take the entrance exam for New York City’s specialized high schools. When I was accepted into one of them, my parents shared their opinion but told me the decision was mine — the better school, which required taking the subway, alone, to a place where I knew no one, or my zone school with my friends, which had a bad reputation but was closer to home.

I remember the decision wearing on me physically — the first time I had felt real stress. My mind obsessed; my stomach was in knots. The zone school was the easy choice. Brooklyn Technical High School was the reach. Fear of regret overpowered fear of the unknown, and I opted for the harder choice. A school with 4,000 students, 45 minutes away by subway, full of the smart kids, defined big and scary for a 13-year-old kid.

When the time came to apply for college, I zeroed in on schools with journalism programs. When I arrived at Boston University, I brought with me the bravado developed over years of  being the English teacher’s favorite student. So when my Journalism 101 professor brought me to tears, I was left reeling and questioning. I was 17 years old, in a new city, alone, and my days of being the best writer in the room were over. Finding my place was hard. I had asked for big and scary, and it delivered.

At the wide-eyed age of 23, when I was fired from my first reporting job at a Brooklyn weekly newspaper, big and scary was not a choice. It was thrust upon me, and I realized I had two options — fight to stay in journalism, the degree I was still financially indebted to and emotionally linked with, or branch out into — gasp — public relations or, worse, writing for trades. When I interviewed for a big publishing company that wrote books about OEM certification (what the hell??)  and came close to being hired, I realized that the survival of my soul required my figuring out how to use this pathetic, loser resume to get back into the newsroom.

I bought a pack of index cards, went to the library (this was 1996, folks — the Internet was barely a thing) and researched the names and phone numbers of every editor within a 25-mile radius of Dearborn, Michigan, where I had fled to after the firing. My then-boyfriend was living there and working for Ford Motor Co. While Sid was at work, I sat on the floor in his completely unfurnished apartment (seriously, we didn’t even have a chair) and went through those index cards, calling editors one by one. Hi, my name is Cynthia, and I’m calling to find out if you have any openings for a reporter. Most of them were not hiring. By 11 am, I was emotionally exhausted, beaten down by the no, no, no. I committed myself to making three calls a day. One morning, I gave a call to this small daily newspaper south of Detroit. I asked for the editor by name. When she picked up the phone, she didn’t so much answer as bark. “I’m on deadline. I can’t talk now. Call me later.” Click.

Having enough experience in newsrooms to know that editors can morph into creatures of darkness while on deadline, and being incredibly desperate, I psyched myself into calling her back. The phone call led to an interview. The interview led to an offer. The offer led to the eight proudest years of my reporting life.

There were other big, scary moments in my life — Traveling around the world by myself at age 21. Choosing to leave the hospital while in labor with my first child because I was sure I could endure the pain better at home. (I wanted, and got, a natural birth.) Opting to leave the easy suburban life of a Ford wife and return to New York City, where nothing is easy and everything costs too much. Choosing to start my own freelance writing business instead of looking for a real job with a regular paycheck and benefits.

Recently, with freelance writing becoming a dying profession (my opinion), I found myself faced again with the choice: easy — find a 9-to-5 job, or big and scary — start the memoir publishing business I’ve been fantasizing about for years.

This is the time for big and scary things!

To be honest, I started writing this blog post two days ago and fear had me delay posting it. It was very personal. I wasn’t entirely sure why I was writing on this topic, only that I felt compelled to do so. I realize now that I needed a reminder of who I am and what I’m made from. In my 20 years of writing other people’s stories, I’ve witnessed how empowering reflection can be. We live through experiences but don’t always process what they have meant in the narrative arc of our lives. I find that older people tend to do this naturally. Possibly because they have the time to do so, but also it’s because I think they have so much material to work from. When you can look back and connect the dots, you realize — life has been extraordinary!

By taking the opportunity to reflect, I realize that the remembering, the processing, has emboldened me. I have done all of these hard things. Now, it’s time to keep building upon those experiences. Everyone has their big, scary moments. Some you don’t want to relive, but others became the building blocks of who you are . Think about those experiences. Write them down. Read it back to yourself. And then, be empowered by your own story.

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Me, By Me

Allow me to tell you two stories of failure — my failure.

Walter and Mom Irene

My grandfather, Walter, and his mother, Irene.

Nine years ago, after my grandfather had the fall, that led to the hospital stay that led to the bed in the nursing home, my family and I sat around the dinner table and planned. It was my parents, my sister and I and both our husbands. All the signs were pointing to this being a journey towards the end, rather than a pit stop on his way back home. The wine was flowing, eyes were filling, and my father said:

We have to get a video camera. We have to go to the home and sit him down and get him to talk. Talk about the war. About his childhood, about that one big mistake that would change all of our lives. We need to get him to talk about all the things he never wanted to talk about. I need to hear those stories.

 

Yes! we all said emphatically. That is a great idea! It’s perfect. Who has a video camera? (This was 2006 — a camera in every pocket wasn’t quite the thing yet). How do we get him to do this anyway? He was the man who, in my recollection, spent most family gatherings sitting in his armchair staring at the TV while the family lived around him.

I’m a reporter, I said. I can do it. You get the camera, and I’ll do it.

There was more wine, and a bit of hope. This exercise would erase some of the pain of knowing that my grandfather, the quintessential introvert and loner, was living in one room, with a roommate, zero privacy and no power over how he lived his days. He complained of being cold, and the blankets I bought him were “lost” when he was moved to a different room. He craved salt for his meals, but his medical team forebade it. If you want to get out of here, I told him, no salt. No sugar! He hung his head, muttered one of his trademark “ahhhhs” or “hmmphs.” He defined “man of few words.”

Each visit to his bedside became harder and harder. Words unsaid filled the room, suffocating the space. You probably won’t get out of here. You’re not getting any better. You can’t walk more than a few feet. The pain of knowledge made asking those questions, “So tell me about the war, Pa,” impossible to move from brain to lips. To ask would be to admit that the end was near. To ask, somehow, now felt hopeless.

Then came the morning, February 2. My father’s voice was unnaturally high-pitched and broken. “Pa is gone,” he said.

So, too, was my chance. Me, the reporter — I’d failed to get the story.

Five years later, in 2011, my uncle was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. One day my phone rings, and for the first time in my 38 years, Uncle Richie called me. Another loner, he too treated words as currency to be spent sparingly. So his reason for calling blew my mind.

I have a lot of stories to tell and you’re a writer, so I was hoping you could write them down for me. 

He was in a hospital in Manhattan. I had a 3- and 6-year-old to care for at home. I told myself that on the weekend, I would go visit him. The weekend came and went. Then he was discharged to the nursing home for rehab. When my mother saw him, she told me not to come. Whoever that person was who called me surely was not in the mood for talking now. He was angry about his situation, in pain and defiant. Within a few days he had defied doctor’s orders and left the nursing home. He flew home to Florida. He chose to spend his final days the way he wanted to spend them. Within weeks, he was gone.

And so was my other opportunity. There was a call, and I did not respond.

Both of these experiences weighed heavily on my mind then and now. But as I explored them, I realized something. As a journalist for 20 years, I know how to write down other people’s stories. I have walked into stranger’s lives and gotten them to relive their most harrowing experiences, to explore their own emotions and answer questions most people would think rude or intrusive to ask. So often I’ve had people tell me, “I read that piece about my mother and you got stories out of her that I’d never heard.” Or, “I feel better having spoken to you — you ask the questions that no one else does.”

This made me realize that, while I am the writer in the family, that did not mean I was the right person to write my own relative’s stories. In the reporting world we know that the worst person to report a story is one who is connected to it. This is because there are inherent conflicts of interest — you are going to be hesitant to ask someone you know well the tough questions. You come in with your own experience, which clouds your objectivity. You hold back because you know your source and subject too well.

I believe that’s exactly what happened with my grandfather and uncle — I was too close to the story.

But I am not the type of person who believes failures make you a failure. In fact, I believe strongly that it’s our mistakes that teach us the greatest lessons and show us where we need to go. The experience with my uncle gave birth to an idea — what if I could be the conduit for other people who have stories they want to tell? And what if I could do that outside of my current paradigm, which was to sell them to a magazine as a profile article? What if I could create a direct-to-consumer publishing model that allowed me to write people’s stories, solely for the people who want them written?

Whenever I thought about this idea, my heart raced. I spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter, then 10 years as a freelance writer, and I really missed those newspaper days. I missed connecting with people on a personal level, telling their stories for exactly what they were — the good and the bad, the uplifting and the devastating. I missed all that I learned from being the catalyst that brought people’s stories from minds to lips to paper.

I started talking with my great uncle John, the last living connection to my ancestors, to get his stories. I compiled photos. I did geneology charts. I was figuring out how to become a memoirist. Then, on Oct, 29, 2012, the time for dreaming and planning came to an abrupt halt. My house was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. It was not unlike a car wreck where the vehicle is totaled but you and your family and unhurt. You are incredibly grateful that everyone is fine, but damn, now there is so much clean-up to do and hassle to deal with, and you have to put the car back together all by yourself, piece by piece, and you have no idea how to build a car. It took us nine months to get our house back into a livable state, but I feel it took us three years to fully heal the scars: emotional, logistical and financial.

And now here I am. The Sandy bills are mostly paid off. I’ve secured steady freelance writing work. My kids, now 8 and 11, are at a wonderfully self-sustainable point in their childhoods — old enough to not need me every second, but young enough to not be scaring me with their independence. My husband is my rock, as always. And now, I’m ready to turn those failures into the future that they were meant to be.

I am launching a memoir-writing business called: Memoiria: The World of Story. Your Story. I have two clients whose books are in process. In early 2016, I’ll be looking for my next projects. The process scares the hell out of me and thrills me to the core, simultaneously — which says to me that I am on the right track. I’m planning to blog about this journey of business building and memoir crafting — a memoir about writing memoirs, per se.

I’m hoping that in the writing, I’ll discover my path. Feel free to join me for the journey.

 


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