Roberta F. King

Author site for the memoir, He Plays a Harp

Archive for the 'Writing' Category

13 January
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Book Grouping

Through people I know or people who know people, I’ve been invited to talk with a few book groups over the last half year. I’d envisioned book groups as part of my author’s role and believe that if there’s six or so people who have all bought or borrowed my book, I should make an effort to be present with them. The relational nature of He Plays a Harp also lends itself to intimate discussions like those in a book group.

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My boss Diana and her friend Jeanne.

My boss hosted an elaborate dinner party for her book group. There were eight women at her house and they asked thoughtful and probing questions, before, during and after dinner. It was a little bit like Trivial Pursuit, I sat with them working my memory hard to recall the specific chapters or sections they were talking about and my motivation and thought process for the choices I made some five years ago. A book group isn’t a place where you can dodge a response or give the short answer, your audience is right next to you on the sofa or across the dining room table. When things got quiet among the members, I offered to read, picking one of the book’s short chapters.

My high school English teacher, Mr. Schelhaas suggested my book to a group he knew that had been reading together for more than 30 years. Five older ladies and I drank wine and snacked on cheese before a soup and bread lunch. We played Dutch BINGO to see who knew who and how. I learned that a few of the women lived a street away from my childhood home, one taught choir at my former high school and most were family friends, Aunts or neighbors of kids I went to school with. I enjoyed the connection. They told me they were grateful for the honesty of my book and appreciated that I didn’t hide any of the bad and ugly parts of Noah’s life and death. The readers specifically mentioned the strength of my relationship with Mike. It was wonderful to know that even without writing it purposefully, I’d shown the depth of our marriage and Mike’s personal character. I read them a chapter I’d never read aloud before, that was mostly about Mike and I tried not to choke. It made me proud that they could see what a great dad he had been to Noah. The ladies and I talked about faith and loss. I said books and stories where people are hurt, pray and magically recover seem fake to me. “Maybe I’m not a believer in the quick fix.” I don’t know if they agreed.

Must Love Dogs Book Group

Must Love Dogs book group

My friend Juanita’s group consisted of writers around my same age—like me, they were public relations and marketing types. We met in a noisy restaurant over supper and half off wine. We talked about motivation, finding time to write and read; process, publication challenges, writing classes vs. groups, platforms and all that writerly minutiae that authors love to talk about. Several of the women had books in progress or almost completed projects that sounded worthy of publication. It was fun to pretend I was an expert as I shared the story of how He Plays a Harp came to be a book, but I didn’t read for them.

 

If you are in a book group and would like to read and discuss He Plays a Harp, please contact me at: he.plays.a.harp@gmail.com

23 September
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The Right Fit

I like finding signs in life. It pleases me when the cosmos give me a hint that things are aligned, or not. A year ago today, I designated September 23 as “Manuscript Pitch Day.” It would have been Noah’s 25th birthday and I took the day off from work. The day was to be devoted to sending my manuscript to the world, in hopes of publication.

When He Plays a Harp was published, Principia brought me a box.

When He Plays a Harp was published, Principia brought me a box.

I’d long prepared for this day: revising, editing, engaging pre-readers and reading dozens of literary agent and small press blogs. I dove deep into tips and editor/agent interviews in publications like Poets & Writers and Writer’s Digest. I created a list of 50 literary agents and made a spreadsheet of their query requirements. I wrote pitch letters that were personalized and charming. All along in this process, I held onto an article I’d read a year earlier in The Grand Rapids Press. It was about a local publishing company, a start up, called Principia Media. I read the company’s blog and was a Facebook follower. I felt a connection—they were politically progressive and our values were closely aligned. I hoped my book was for them.

The day I sent out my pitches, I braced myself for the onslaught of rejection that the magazines promised me would come. I kept hoping, though, that Principia would want to read my full manuscript, they just seemed right to me. While a New York agent and publisher would have been fine and the idea of fame was fun, I really wanted a company with whom I could form a long-term, genuine relationship. Someone who understood He Plays a Harp wasn’t a transactional book and while making money and selling books was important to me; connecting with readers was just as important.

We celebrated Noah’s 25th birthday that night by sending off a sky lantern. As the lantern blew across Muskegon Lake, I made a quick wish that my manuscript would find a home and become a book. It knew it would be the best way to honor Noah’s life.

The following days I obsessively checked my email for responses—and sure enough—rejections were coming in. Within a week though, I’d heard from two agents who was interested and one publisher—Principia. As soon as the manuscript was accepted by Principia, I contacted the agents who were still considering and told them I’d found a publisher. I’ve always felt it was better to reject before you’re rejected. I have no regrets about my decision to use a local small press publisher.

Working with Principia has brought some great people into my life. CEO Vern Jones and his wife Irene are as kind and compassionate as any two people I know; Dirk Wierenga brought a significant amount of book design, publishing and book distribution knowledge to the table and public relations director, Julie Hurley worked with local bookstores and wrote my first press release for me.

Everyone at Principia worked hard from the start to make sure He Plays a Harp was well edited, proofed, beautifully designed and readily available to readers. They’ve supported me with their presence and their commitment to me as an author. I feel a bond with them that I don’t think would exist if I’d found a publisher outside of Michigan or one who was more interested in making money than sharing Noah’s story.

29 June
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Up North Book Tour

Okay, so it wasn’t the greatest idea to schedule a book tour around the Fourth of July holiday.

At the time, it made sense. I wanted to be in the town of Big Bay for the Independence Day parade that Bay Cliff Health Camp sponsors. The campers dress up and make elaborate costumes for the parade that celebrates their independence. Noah was in the parade when he was a camper and Big Cliff was an important part of his life. One chapter is about Bay Cliff and his camp experience is woven throughout He Plays a Harp. Combining a book event or two with the parade and visiting Bay Cliff seemed easy.

Noah dressed as mashed potatoes for the Independence Day parade in Big Bay.

Noah dressed as mashed potatoes for the Independence Day parade in Big Bay.

In reality, making a Fourth of July book tour was a bit more challenging than I expected–some libraries and stores were already set with events for the summer–though I was working on this in early May. Some claimed to be too busy at this time of year, while others said they were too slow. This made me ponder, where do people who live Up North go in the summer? Do Yoopers come downstate to Muskegon, Grand Rapids or Detroit.  Do they go further north, to places like Winnipeg or Moosejaw? I’ll be finding out the answer to these and other vexing questions next week!
In the end, I secured FOUR book events:

Les Cheneaux Community Library 1:30 PM, on Tuesday, July 1. The library is in Cedarville. I’ll be reading and signing books.

Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore 5-7 PM on Wednesday, July 2 The store is in Munising. I’ll be talking with readers and signing books.

We’ll be at the SAIL benefit concert at the Ore Dock Brewing Company in Marquette 6-9 PM on July 3. This benefit will help Upper Michigan citizens with disabilities. They’ll have books on hand before I arrive. A portion the proceeds from book sales will help SAIL with its programs.

Private reading for teen campers and staff at Bay Cliff Health Camp, July 5 after lunch.

If you’re a Yooper or a troll like me just up for a visit, stop in to the library or bookstore and say hello.

PS: If you subscribe to the St. Ignace News, there was a great article about the camp, book tour and Noah. Can’t wait to get my paper copy!

29 May
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Connectioning

I’ve found that one of the joys of reading He Plays a Harp is talking with people who come to my book events. I haven’t had that many events (yet) but at each, I meet people who have connected with my writing or my story.

Open

Open

Recently at Schuler Books, a young woman came for the reading and brought me a book to be signed. She was a bit teary and I asked her if she’d lost a child. “No,” she said, “but my son Colin has CP.” I asked her to stay after the signing so we could talk. Her son is 2 ½ years old and is in Grand Rapids for a session at the Conductive Learning Center. The six-week program of intense physical and occupational therapy helps kids with CP and other conditions gain strength and mobility. The mom was from California, her husband had just flown back home and she was staying for the therapy program. During the event I read a couple of stories about the severity of Noah’s disability—one about reading to him throughout his life because he never learned to read and another about an incident when Noah, despite his poor hand coordination, pulled a fire alarm at school. These stories perhaps foreshadowed her future with her son. She’s still coming the grips with the idea that she is raising a son with a severe disability—an emotional and heart-ripping situation when you don’t know what the future holds. Even with a non-disabled child, there is no sure and smooth path to the future, but that path is more stable and steady. Some kids with disabilities require constant care and attention and I think she knows that’s what her son will need. It is a heavy burden to carry—knowing that your child’s future is full of complications and physical, mental and social barriers physical.

I didn’t have any words of advice—other than you meet each moment as it comes and just do your best for you and your child. The fact that she was in Michigan from California for a six-week program showed me that whatever the future for Colin might hold, it was certain to be filled with tender care and motherly love.

Could anyone ask for anything more?

03 May
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A Second Goodbye

Broken

Broken

After four years of writing, revising and editing; making photo choices and reviewing page proofs I have a book in hand.

I love the feel of its soft touch paper cover, the typography is pleasing and the stories delight me as I re-read them. I have a handful of events planned and people seem excited to read it. This is what I worked for, right?

And I wonder why I don’t feel better, happier about this moment in time. I reached out to another author, Christine O’Hagen. She wrote The Book of Kehls, about the death of her son Jamie from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy at the age of 24. After her book was published she had similar feelings. She wrote this to me: “The reason why you are not happier now is because you had Noah with you during the writing of the book, and now he is gone again. It took me a while to figure this out. The whole catharsis thing everyone in the world promised would happen – didn’t happen at all.”

Christine was right. For four years I held Noah close as I wrote. I thought about him hard, recalling scenes and moments that would help me create his character for the book. I held him closer than I had in many years and in the writing he became alive to me again.  Then, the writing ended. I had a sweet book on the way and I focused on other things. I felt emptiness return and the ongoing grief that had been tempered by writing was back. I’m missing Noah like I did in the early years after his death.

In the next few weeks I’m doing several readings and book signing events. I’m hoping to feel Noah’s presence as I introduce him to people that never knew him and share memories of him with our old friends.

 

 

 

15 March
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Finally! A book.

It is with great pleasure I’m finally able to share news about my memoir, He Plays a Harp.  The official publication date of the book is May 11, 2014, Mother’s Day.

Cover of He Plays a Harp

Cover of He Plays a Harp

I didn’t set out to write a book, I just wanted to mark the fifth anniversary of Noah’s death with a piece of memorable writing. Thanks to The Rapidian, I had a place to publish it and the waves were set in motion. Readers reacted to the essay with encouragement and strong emotion and that’s pretty much all an author needs. Other essays followed. A few literary journals published essays, people shared them on social media and I knew Noah and I were on the right trajectory.

Over the course of three years, I remembered, I wrote, I revised and revised again.

I found a wonderful publisher close to home, Principia Media. I read an article about the company soon after I began writing and I always hoped they’d take me on as an author. They’re as enthusiastic about He Plays a Harp as I am. I’ve met some great people through the process—Principia’s CEO Vern Jones and Dirk Wierenga, who is an incomparable publishing advisor.

Over the next few months, news about my launch party, readings and media appearances will be shared here. I’ll be creating a new Facebook page for He Plays a Harp and sharing news on Twitter and Google Plus. I hope you’ll stop by for a reading and that the book’s messages around life, loss and love are memorable.

PS: And the cover? It’s an oil pastel drawing that my husband Mike created, we found it in his portfolio and thought it was perfect.

27 February
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Odd Day, Even Year

noah scans-113

Noah in a hammock with a hibiscus.

Like a birthday, wedding anniversary or any important date, the anniversary of Noah’s death is one we note. It’s on my electronic calendar as a recurring date, The Day Noah Died, as if I really need reminding. It is on our wall photo calendar with a picture of him and the words, Noah’s Day on February 27. He died in 2006, an even year just after the end of the winter Olympics in Torino.

Eight years seems like a long time for him to be gone, I miss him just as much now as I did when his death was fresh and Mike and I were navigating the first days, weeks and months of being Noah-less. This anniversary is a little bit different and perhaps a bit less bitter. With the upcoming publication of my memoir, He Plays a Harp, I feel like I’ve accomplished what I set out to do five years ago: I’ve created a permanent reminder of him and our life. People sometimes ask me if writing his story has been cathartic or healing and until now, I said, “no.” I truly didn’t believe that writing about Noah could heal or fix my hurt. I’ve re-thought that premise and I’ve come to realize that writing about bad experiences can heal and help.  (It also helps to have found a wonderful publishing team in Principia Media). I’ve written and exposed very personal parts of my life, my emotions and my relationships with Noah, Mike and Tasha. I still feel profound grief from his death, but I don’t feel as fragile as I did eight years ago.

The writing has strengthened my relationship with Noah. I never believed that people could have a growing and ongoing relationship with someone who isn’t in this world, but as with using writing to heal, I believe that Noah and I are closer than we were when he was alive.

Today is Noah’s Day and I honor him for helping me write our memoir and giving me seventeen years+eight more years of inspiration.

 

 

05 September
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The Signs

I’ve always been open to signs, you know, like an answer to a meaningful question via the appearance of a rainbow, a bird crossing my path or something else that tells me what I need to know.  Though I’m open to signs, I can’t think of a time when I actually had a meaningful sign.

Until today.

Heart Rock

Heart Rock

I found this rock, or chunk or concrete while I was running. I picked it up and ran home with it in my hand and the moment I spotted it, I thought “Ah! A heart rock for Sally.” Sally is my friend from the Neahtawanta Inn in Traverse City. She collects heart-shaped rocks. Her husband Bob Russell, died August 23 from cancer, which he fought for almost three years. I met Sally and Bob when we stayed at the Inn in 1988. I was pregnant with Noah. While Noah was growing up, we stayed there, too. I like to think that they built the accessible room at the Inn just for us! I’ll bring that rock to Sally, in memory of Bob.

While running, before I found the rock, I was thinking about meetings in the afterlife. When someone dies, I’ll say a little prayer to Noah (since he’s an angel now) and ask him to keep an eye out for whomever might be arriving. I don’t know if Bob was a heaven-believer or not, that isn’t important. What matters is that Noah is looking for him, to welcome him to a new place.

Before I ran this morning I received an e mail that chapter from my memoir that I’ve been working on as a stand alone piece was accepted for web exclusive publication in Brain, Child, a literary journal for mothers. Other authors who’ve been published in it include Jane Smiley and Anne Tyler. The piece I submitted is titled, The Orders and is about when Mike and I chose to sign do not resuscitate orders and allow natural death orders for Noah.

One of my 2013 new year’s resolutions was that come September I’d start sending queries for my memoir to literary agents. I also wanted to see six pieces of it published–that would be another sign it was ready. That time has come, Brain, Child is the sixth. Also, Noah would have been 25 on September 23 of this year and all these numbers seem like a sign to me.

30 December
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Poking the Wound

One of my classmates in my online writing class mentioned a book she thought I’d like to read, Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon and I’m pleased that she did.

Noah had a volunteer job at Meijer handing out fliers. He thought it was fun and people would often tell us they’d see him at work.

The book is about parents, children and how their identities are wrapped around one another. His focus is on parents with children who are not “vertical”or similar to their parents. He writes about kids who are deaf, dwarfs, have autism, are prodigies, become killers, are disabled or otherwise very different their parents–kids who are horizontal. Kids who are far from the parental tree. The book is comprehensive, with more than 600 pages (900 including the notes, bibliography and index) and is such interesting reading. He delves deep into the relationship between kids who are different than their parents. He interviews people who are brutally and graphically honest about these differences and how difficult it can be to love a child that is different or to be the child that is different. Solomon and the people he talks with don’t hold back or sugarcoat what life is like when there is difference. The pictures they paint of their kids and the relationships aren’t always what people want to believe happens in life. Even to someone who parented two kids with disabilities, I had to pause and think about the parents (and kids) in his book who faced challenges many times greater than my own. Also, they were saying things about their feelings and their kids that I’ve known to be true about Noah, but avoided altogether as I’ve written my memoir. I’ve come to realize that I’ve been protecting Noah, but not for any good reason. I just didn’t want readers to not love him because he was cognitively impaired. Because Mike and I were around him so much, we understood him, we realized he had a special intelligence that couldn’t be quantified by an IQ test. We knew it, we could see and feel it. But, the reality was, he had a significant intellectual impairment. At present, my memoir circles around this important fact. To tell his story honestly, it can’t just about the wheelchair, it’s about the brain, too.

Ouch.

Poking the wound, pressing where it hurts is what makes writing memorable and real. For my memoir be successful, I need to write about all of Noah. My manuscript will undergo one last revision and in it, I’ll to dig a little deeper and press it where it hurts to draw the readers in and to be true to Noah’s real character.

23 December
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Nervous

This is one of several Christmas stories in my memoir.

Near Kalkaska we found this Nativity Scene and laid Noah down as a baby Jesus stand-in. He wasn’t happy, but couldn’t get up and get away. This photo has  nothing to do with this story, but I like it.

Noah loved Christmas and we fueled his passion with our own holiday hype. We’re super hall-deckers. There’s not a surface in our house that doesn’t have some piece of Christmas crud on it. Elves on shelves. A manger scene with a menagerie. In the bathroom a rooftop Kleenex box topper with a pulled tissue looks like chimney smoke. A bobble head Santa. Angels in high and low places. A super-groovy Christmas red wax lava lamp. We set up miniature figurines of the entire cast of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer accompanied by a large, animated Bumble with stiff white fur. Central to our celebration is a big, lit like Tokyo at night, fully-ornamented, set-up-the-day-after-Thanksgiving-until-Epiphany-or-St. Knut’s Day-fake tree.  At our house, Christmas is never a day, but a season.

***

Shortly after his late September birthday, Noah began his Christmas quizzing.

“How many more days to Christmas?” “How do reindeer fly?” “How many elves are there?” And the random, “Does Santa really love me?”

For years we played along. Mike and I liked the innocence and the imagination that surrounded Noah during the holidays. Even when he was in the third grade and someone told him (again) that there was no Santa, we acted shocked.

“What?! Who said that? They are in such trouble. If you don’t believe you won’t receive,” I said. “Santa-denying is a very bad thing.”

“Really?” said Noah.

“If you want to believe in Santa, that’s okay. Dad and I do, and you can too. You don’t have to go along with the kids at school. Believe what you want to believe.”  Noah was a little naïve, a little too trusting of his dad and I. He was born with cerebral palsy and relied on us, not only for his mobility and day-to-day care, and for much of his life information outside the classroom. Sometimes the worldview we provided was laced with imagination and irony.

Noah seemed suspicious, but was hesitant to question us too strongly on the chance of jeopardizing his relationship with Santa.

“When can I go see Santa?” he asked me at Halloween.

“That’s going to be awhile,” I said. “You have all of November and some of December. You don’t want to go too early because Santa could forget and you don’t want to go too late because he might be out of things. We have to time it just right,” I said.

“When’s that?” he said.

“Around December 10.”

Noah held me to that date, checking the days on the calendar after Thanksgiving. We’d see Santa out and about while shopping and he’d crane his neck as we wheeled by.

“Now? Can’t we go now?” he said.

“No. Not yet. Still too early.”

“Those kids are with Santa Claus.”

“Yes, they are. You’ll get your chance,” I said. “Do you have your list ready?”

“Not really.”

“Well, then. There you go. No need to see Santa today. Let’s get that list in shape,” I said.

We didn’t make a paper list. We just talked about the things Noah wanted and needed, and his job was to remember the list when he finally got to see Santa. “It’s more sincere that way,” I told him.

“Buzz Lightyear. Talking Woody. Racecar set. Charlie Brown DVDs,” he recited, working on his memorizing.

“All good stuff. How about some pajamas? A new jacket? How about some underwear? You can always use underwear,” I teased.

“No underwear,” he said. “I’m not asking Santa for that,” he said with disgust in his voice and a wrinkled nose.

The Saturday we headed to visit Santa was cold and clear, unusual for West Michigan which tends to be gloomy in the winter. The sun was out and there was a thin layer of new snow on the ground. We bundled Noah in a jacket and mittens and loaded him and his wheelchair into the back of the van.

“Are you ready to talk with Santa?” I asked.

“I’m nervous,” Noah said.

“Don’t be. It’ll be fine. Just remember your list. And be polite,” I said.

“I’m nervous.”

He looked nervous; his face was flushed and slightly sweaty. Perhaps I’d put too much pressure on him with memorizing the list and all.

“Dad and I’ll be there with you. There’s nothing to be concerned about,” I said.

As we stood near the mall’s North Pole chalet, an authentic-looking Santa motioned toward us with a white-gloved hand. We looked around, up and down the line, not quite knowing for sure who was getting the wave. Santa sent a helper to fetch Noah.

“Come on up here,” she said. “Santa says he’s been waiting to see you.”

Noah’s eyes widened and he sat up tall in his wheelchair. His involuntary startle reflexes took over and his feet kicked the footplate of his chair and his hand flung out to the side. “It’s okay, Noah,” I said. I looked at the helper. “He can’t help the flailing.”

She smiled and we pushed on up to Santa.

He came down from his Santa chair and knelt close to Noah, putting his arm around the back of the wheelchair asking his name. “Noah,” he whispered. Santa’s hearing must have been excellent.

“Well, Noah,” he said in a normal, not too ho-ho or loud voice. “Have you been good this year?”

“Yes,” Noah squeaked.

“I thought so. What would you like for Christmas this year?”

Noah paused. His eyes gazed heavenward as he worked to recall his list, he bit his lip, his hand clenched and relaxed. A long stretch of seconds passed. It felt like hours to Mike and I.

“Well?” Santa said kindly.

Then, in voice loud enough for people to hear he blurted, “Underwear. I want underwear!”

Santa looked surprised. Mike and I laughed. Noah blushed and looked at his feet.

“Is that all?”

“Yes,” Noah said.

“That’s a good thing to want for Christmas,” Santa said. He was trying not to laugh. “I’m sure my elves can find some other presents for you, too,” he said.

Noah sighed. “Thanks.”

We thanked Santa, too.

“Wait, we need a picture of this young man with me,” he said. He wheeled Noah over near the painted backdrop of pine trees, a glowing cabin and snow.

“On the count of three, smile,” said the photographer.

With confidence he smiled, knowing, believing that Santa would take care of him.