Roberta F. King

Author site for the memoir, He Plays a Harp and other writing by Roberta F. King

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.

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.

 

 

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.

27 July
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A Week of Writing

When writers start to seek publication for their work, we’re told that rejection is something we must be able to accept. It is a reality of the trade. I, too, have learned that rejection is more frequent than acceptance. That’s just numbers, there are a lot of writers and not as many places for writing to be published. Yet, it is still (always) painful and no one likes receiving an email that starts something like this: “unfortunately we are unable to accept…” Accept you into our writer’s workshop or your piece in our literary journal.

Earlier this year, I was rejected from a writer’s workshop that I had my heart set on attending. It was aspirational, I’ll admit. It was a long shot of epic magnitude and I knew that, too. I gave it my best and didn’t get in. On the bright side, I didn’t have to spend $840 on tuition and another $400 on a cross-country plane ticket. (Luckily I have friends with a cabin nearby, so the housing would have been free) (and I’m sorry I’m missing them).

My consolation prize was a good one. At a fundraising event for The Rapidian I was the successful bidder on a cottage. Located on Pickerel Lake in Newaygo County, it is an hour from my home and it has provided the solitude for writing I needed. It cost me less than the airfare across the US. In addition to the cottage, there is a little boat house, with electricity and a straight on view of the lake. It has been my writing space for a week. It has been a very productive week for me. I like seeing water, I need a quiet place and I need to be able to focus.

I set out to accomplish what I needed to do, I have completed the first draft of my memoir and am beginning to revise and re-write existing sections.

It would have been great to be in a community of impressive writers in a very sexy location right now, but that time will come one day. Until then I’ll take this view.

 

21 June
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Writer, Reporter or Author?

Earlier this week I took PTO from work and dedicated much to the day to watching a thunderstorm roll in from Lake Michigan and writing/re-writing parts of my memoir.

As it thundered and rained, I thought about being at home to write and how much pleasure having uninterrupted time to write gives me. I’m lucky though, I write for a living in the field of public relations. I write profiles of donors, stories about grantees, speeches, notes for speakers at events, letters to donors, copy for the internet and other professional pieces. I also am a citizen reporter for The Rapidian. In that volunteer role, I report on whatever interests me–running, authors, artists and musicians mostly. It is the most enjoyable volunteer work I can imagine.

When I’m working on my memoir, I am an author. I tried to think of what the difference between writer, reporter and author are. I formulated an idea, ever so slightly based on one idea lifted from Michel Foucault (who is much more thoughtful on this than I ever want to be). As a author, I am creating something new, of lasting value and something that will (hopefully, when published) outlive me. When I look at my PR writing and my reporting, I know that these pieces won’t stand the test of time. They’re good, they’re memorable, but by my criteria (new, lasting value, will outlive me) they are not author pieces.

When I first began writing Noah’s story, I did it, in part, because I wanted a record of his life to exist. After Mike and I are dead, who would remember him unless I told his story?  I want Noah to outlive me, which is pretty much what all parents want for their kids right?

Noah’s death made me an author.