Archive for the 'writing' Category

Come see Whitney and me at Sandmeyer’s Bookstore today

 That’s the star of the book in front of Sandmeyers Bookstore with me back in 2007, when Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound was published.Today, May 2, 2015 is Independent Bookstore Day in Chicago, and Ulrich and Ellen Sandmeyer have graciously invited my Seeing Eye dog Whiteny and me to come help them celebrate:

Sandmeyer’s Bookstore:
11 am- Meet Beth Finke, author of HANNI & BETH: SAFE & SOUND, and her Seeing Eye dog and learn how they work together.

I’ll be signing books in print and in Braille, and my Seeing Eye dog’s pawprint will be rubber-stamped into each sold copy as well.

But wait! There’s more! Sandmeyer’s Bookstore is holdidng a drawing, and a lucky winner will win a free signed copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, too. I’ll be there with Whitney for about an hour — come early and see us. More about Chicago’s Independent Bookstore Day from their web site:

What is Independent Bookstore Day?
Independent Bookstore Day is a day when readers, booksellers, authors and book lovers all over the country celebrate the local independent bookstores in their community.

What day is Independent Bookstore Day?

Saturday May 2nd!

What’s going on that day?

Some stores are having events. Some stores are having raffles. Some will have author appearances. Check the events page for what’s going on. There’s even a special short story written by Chicago’s own Stuart Dybek and illustrated by Dmitry Samarov!

What’s the deal with the story?

Written by Stuart Dybek, the story is a previously unpublished work illustrated by local author and artist Dmitry Samarov. The print run is limited to 120 copies.

How do I get the story?

You go to one of the participating bookstores early in the day and spend $25 to get a passbook. Then visit each of the remaining 11 stores to collect a page of the story. When you collect and combine all 12 pieces, you’ll have a book!

All of them?!

Yes. All twelve bookstores. That’s half of the fun! You’ll get to see everything the indy bookstore world of Chicago has to offer.

Check out  Chicago Independent Bookstore Day’s events and giveaways page for information on what all 12 participating Chicago bookstores will be offering, and start the day out at Sandmeyer’s Bookstore, 714 S. Dearborn St. (312.922.2104). Whitney and I will be listening for you there.

What makes me happy

Last week I asked my downtown Chicago group of memoir-writers to come up with 500-word essays titled What Makes Me Happy. “Don’t come back with lists, or with vague things like ‘family and friends’,” I said. I asked them to write about an event from the past couple weeks that left them feeling fresh, energized, rejuvenated. “What was it about that specific experience that made you so happy?” The writers did not disappoint.

Sandy wrote about the teeny-tiny narrow view she has of Lake Michigan from her 7th floor Chicago apartment. “If I stand in the right hand corner of my living room and look to my left with my forehead resting on the window, I can see my small piece of the sky, sand and water.” The sky was a rosy pink the morning she wrote her piece, and the huge blocks of ice at the edge of the lake were starting to melt. “We can see the sand again,” she wrote. “And, instead of non-moving frozen water on the lake, the small waves are showing their white caps as they roll in at the shoreline.”

Nancy shares lunch and laughter with two longtime friends every Sunday, and her essay described them playing a card game after a recent lunch. “I seem to lose more often than I win, but IF Jo and Elaine were here, they’d tell you I was exaggerating.” She said every week each of them thinks they are the loser. “By the following Sunday, nobody remembers who won the week before anyway.”

Thumbing through a photo album she started in 1960 reminded Sheila that the photography hobby she enjoys to this day started with a memorable gift. “Aunt Anona gave me my best 8th grade graduation present,” she wrote. “It was a Kodak Hawkeye camera.”

Tycelia had just returned from a trip to Mexico City where she visited the Temple of the Moon at Teotihuacan. “When my husband passed this summer, I felt that all of my happiness had died with him,” she wrote. “But I felt happy to have succeeded in my attempt to climb that magnificent temple — for the first time in months, my heart had a break from sorrow.”

Yesterday was the last meeting for this eight-week session with that group of memoir-writers, and it was energizing to end on such a happy note. The seniors in all four memoir-writing classes I lead here in Chicago are all on spring break now, and so am I.

On the left that’s Pick (a.k.a. Keith Pickerel) and on the right Hank (a.k.a. Henry Londner). We’re lucky to count them as friends.

No doubt I’ll be publishing a post soon on a happy event: Whitney, Mike and I are taking off tonight for a four-day visit in Washington, D.C. We’ll be staying with our dear friends Pick and Hank, and being with those two, enjoying Hank’s fine cooking, singing along to Pick’s sensational piano playing, sharing stories and jokes and laughs, well, that always makes us happy.

They all helped me read

Elementary school teachers commend me for struggling to sound out words when I read from the Braille version of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound during school presentations. “That’s what we’re trying to get our kids to do!” They tell me, assuring me I needn’t apologize for my poor Braille-reading skills. “It’s good for the kids to see a grown-up working so hard to try to read — it convinces them to try hard to read, too.”

Monday evening my Seeing Eye dog and I visited Tutoring Chicago, a non-profit organization that offers free one-to-one tutoring services to economically disadvantaged children in grades one through six. Thanks to the generosity of donors, sponsors and my publisher, Blue Marlin Publications, every child in the group of first and second-graders there was presented with their own print copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound to read along with me.

I made it through the reading--with help from all these kids.

I made it through the reading–with help from all these kids.

During other school presentations, I only get through the first couple lines of Braille before closing the book and giving up., but these kids on Monday wouldn’t let me quit!

Anytime I struggled with a word or couldn’t sound it out on my own, one of the kids would read on from their own book or give me a clue so we could sound it out together. It was magical.

Only problem? It took us so long to read together that we didn’t have much time for question and answer time. The kids didn’t seem to mind that, though –as long as there was enough time for me to autograph their books in print and in Braille they were happy. And what a coincidence – so was I, knowing that each and every one of those curious and high-spirited kids in that group would be leaving that night with their very own brand new book to read at home.

March forth

That’s me with writers from my Wednesday class at a party a few years back.

Last week my Wednesday memoir-writing class met on March 4th, the only day of the year that is a command. Our writing prompt? March Forth, of course.

Writers came back with stories of lining up and marching into school when they were kids, marching in parades, marching to the beat of a different drummer, and even the march of time. One of the more poignant pieces was written by a writer who took a bus to Washington, D.C. in August, 1963 for Martin Luther King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “All I carried with me was my purse, some food, water, a notebook and my father’s old 8mm film camera, plus a few rolls of film tucked into the bottom of an old leather carrying case,” Sandy wrote. “I was excited to be on an evening bus heading towards our nation’s capitol, a place I had read about so often but never visited.” Here’s an excerpt from Sandy’s piece, describing what she saw as she “marched forth” from the bus station to the Washington Mall:

There were families of all races, elderly people who looked tired but happy to be there, people from cities, farmers from fields, hippies from Haight-Asbury contrasted by straight-laced corporate and government workers. Everyone came together. The sounds of English mixed together with different languages filled the air. Crowds multiplied as they gathered on the Washington Mall, squeezed so close to each other that they looked like patchwork pieces tightly sewn together into a colorful quilt.

Sandy read her essay out loud in class on the very day the Justice Department issued findings that accuse the police department in Ferguson, Missouri of racial bias and routinely violating the constitutional rights of black citizens. We talked about this while discussing Sandy’s essay, how 50 years after that march in 1963, things still aren’t right. . Wanda — a beloved 93-year-old African-American writer in our class — was uncharacteristically quiet during the discussion. The only time she chimed in was after someone pointed out that the Justice Department had 35,000 pages of records to prove its case. “It took them 35,00 pages to find out what we’ve known our entire lives,” she said.

Cold enough for ya?

The predicted high today is 4º. Some of our Chicago friends have escaped to Florida, Mexico, Costa Rica. Whitney and me? We took off north, to Wisconsin.

I’m writing from our hotel in beautiful Menomonee Falls, just outside Milwaukee. Whitney and I are preparing for our visits to schools in nearby Mayville, which, according to the city web site, is “a growing city of 5,240+ residents.” How is it that this tiny town found out about me and my dog and my book and asked us to come? Let me explain.


Hanni and I during a visit to Horace Mann School in 2009.

Six years ago Hanni, the star of my children’s book Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound and I spent the day at Horace Mann elementary school in West Allis (a suburb of Milwaukee). A high school friend was teaching there at the time, and our visit was billed as a reading incentive program.

After our day of class visits, Hanni and I returned to the school in the evening to spend time with the kids and their parents. Families wrote books together that evening, and when I signed copies of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound in print and in Braille for the kids, they had me sign my name into the books they’d written with their parents, too. As the evening drew to a close, I told these budding young authors that I had to get home. “I need to get some sleep!” I said, explaining that Hanni and I were waking up early the next morning to be interviewed on Morning Blend, a show on WTMJ-TV, the NBC affiliate in Milwaukee.

After hearing this, one of the kids there asked my very favorite question of the entire day: “What does it feel like to be a world famous author?”

And so, there’s your answer. How did the tiny town of Mayville come to ask me to come and visit their schools? I’m a world-famous author.

And now, the rest of the story: one of the teachers who taught at Horace Mann when I visited with Hanni in 2009 teaches in Mayville now. She emailed late last year to ask if my Seeing Eye dog and I could come, then asked the local Lions Club if they would donate the funds to bring me up here. They said yes, and after a cab ride to Union Station in Chicago, a train to Milwaukee, and a bus to our hotel in Menomonee Falls, that teacher is picking me up tomorrow morning for a day full of classroom visits. Like every good teacher I’ve met, this one is resourceful!

I’m looking forward to visiting the Mayville Schools,and who knows, if one of the schoolyards there is fenced in, maybe Whitney will be able to get out and play in the snow.

To get to the steamy scene, scroll right to the bottom

Four different editors at University of Illinois Press went over the rough draft of my memoir before they published it.Memoir Cover All of them suggested changes.

One of the most common request? Stronger verbs. They also wanted descriptions that were more precise, more colorful, more heartfelt. Now, 12 years after my memoir, Long Time, No See was published, I am leading four memoir-writing classes every week and urging writers to , you guessed it: use stronger verbs and include precise, colorful, and heartfelt descriptions in their writing.

The requests from my editors forced me to return to certain settings in Long Time, No See and focus on how events at hand made me feel at the time. Not always easy. Some of the most life-altering events in our lives are ones we’d rather forget.

An example: Surgeons operated on my left eye first. That surgery was unsuccessful. The first Try with my right eye didn’t work, either. They operated on it a second time. Each surgery was painful. Each required month-long stays at the hospital to recover, and I had to keep my face down every minute of every day of those long months away from home. My head was down when I “watched” television, when I listened to books, when I walked to the bathroom. I slept with my face in the center of a donut “hemorrhoid” pillow – eye surgeons didn’t want to risk me turning my head in the night.

In Long Time, No See I write about the retina surgeon examining my eyes after the third surgery and breaking the news to Mike and me that I’ll never see again. In the rough draft I told readers that after hearing this, Mike and I walked out of the office and headed to White Sox Park for a baseball game. Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! University of Illinois Press editors read that and said I absolutely must tell my readers what was going through my head when we found out my blindness was permanent.

Not exactly a moment I wanted to relive – who wants to re-enter that room and hear that bad news all over again? In the end, though, rewriting that scene turned out to be GREAT therapy. I had to think. When I was told I’d never see again, was I disappointed? Angry? Sad? Scared? The answer is here, in an excerpt from the published version of Long Time, No See (University of Illinois Press, 2003):

“I’m afraid there’s nothing else we can do,” he said in a tone I recognized from his final report on my left eye.

All I could think to ask was, “Can I lift my head up now?”

He said I could. Thankful for at least that, I raised my head for the first time in over a month. I was struck by a sudden feeling of freedom and relief. No more lasers, no more operations, no more weekly visits to Chicago, no more worrying whether or not this all was going to work. We’d been at this for nearly a year; now it was finally over.

I swiveled my head as if to look around. I saw nothing. Mike talked to the doctor, asking sensible questions, I suppose. Turning toward their voices, I asked if this was really it, if we’d really exhausted the possibilities.

“I’m a religious man,” the doctor answered, “and in the religion I follow we believe in miracles. I believe God has cured all sorts of ailments. This could happen with you, but there’s nothing else I can do for you medically.”

We stood up to leave. I reached out for the doctor’s hand. He clasped mine with both of his, and I thanked him for all he’d done. He was shaking. I felt sorry for him; I would’ve liked to tell him we were going to be all right.

The White Sox were in town that day. Going to a ballgame after learning I’d be blind for the rest of my life was probably a strange thing to do, but it beat heading home and sitting on our pitiful second-hand couch and wondering where to turn next. From the book:

The White Sox were having a rotten year. There were maybe 8,000 people in the stands; Floyd Banister pitched, the Sox lost. But it was strangely pleasant, sitting next to Mike with my head up, not giving a thought to eyes or surgery. We each had a bratwurst and a beer. Between bites and gulps and giving me play by play, Mike bantered with other fans, cursing the underachievers on the team. I laughed at Nancy Faust, the Sox organist—she’s famous for picking songs that play on player’s names. Mike marveled at the endurance of Carlton Fisk, and we both wondered out loud why every time we went to a game, that bum Banister was pitching.

The three-hour ride home was quiet, and once we got there, we found ourselves sitting on our miserable couch, just as we’d feared, holding hands and trying to imagine how we’d cope. Our only decision that night was to go to sleep, and today being Valentine’s Day, I’ll end the post with that steamy scene — editors agreed with me that it didn’t need more description than I had in the rough draft!

Our bed felt wonderful. I was home for good. Despite everything, a powerful relief came over me, a sense of security, such a change from how I’d felt during those months in my hospital bed. And I realized right away that sight isn’t needed under the covers.

That’s 105 in dog years — but hey, who’s counting?

Me, seven-year-old Hanni and our book when it first came out in 2007.

My retired Seeing Eye dog Hanni will turn fifteen years old this weekend! She was only five years old when I started sending Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound out to agents and publishers, and now, ten years later, the book and its star are still going strong. Just this past weekend a brand new review of Safe & Sound came out on a dogblog called Reading with Rhythm, And the good news? They liked it! Here’s an excerpt :

This book presents a great picture of what it’s like to be a working dog. It’s about the job at hand, but the story is also about the relationship between Beth and Hanni. How they had to learn to trust each other because both their lives depended on that trust. How that trust was the foundation for a deep love. It’s a lovely tale.

The star of the Reading with Rhythm blog is a real-life Black Lab named Rhythm who visits schools and the Somervell County Library in Glen Rose, Texas, where kids come and share books with her and sharpen their reading skills. The latest Reading with Rhythm post reports that Electra, a guide-dog puppy, came along with Rhythm on a recent school visit…and so did a copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound! The review says our book was “perfect for 3rd-graders” and “suitable for all ages, young and old.”

Hanni will be celebrating her birthday this weekend with Nancy and Steven, the wonderful couple who adopted her when she retired, and this book review sure is a great way to kickstart that celebration. Thank you, Reading with Rhythm, and here’s to you, Hanni. As the Beatles like to say: “So glad it’s your birthday — happy birthday to you – oooo!”

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