Archive for the 'writing' Category



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!”

Did you catch me on TV last night?

Last night a news show on public television called Chicago Tonight ran a feature about “The Village Movement: How Elders are Aging in Place.” If you link to it here and look very closely, you’ll see footage of me at the beginning of the segment.

The back story: I lead three memoir-writing classes in Chicago each week. Two of them are sponsored by Lincoln Park Village, which is one of many “virtual villages” across the country. From the Chicago Tonight web site:

Folks over age 60 are opting to stay in their homes and communities well into their golden years. A collection of “virtual villages” are popping up all over the country, providing engagement, services, and a new way of looking at how we age.

Lincoln Park Village here in Chicago boasts over 400 members, and its classes — everything from meditation to film studies to my memoir class — meet in people’s homes. Chicago Tonight knew they’d need to show some background video while interviewing experts about the “Village Movement,” so they showed up at our memoir-writing class yesterday to get some footage.

For the class starting on February 5, all Whitney needs to do is get me across the street.

Recognizing that interest in memoir-writing for seniors is growing along with the population, and knowing that seniors here in Chicago are on waiting lists to get into classes, I decided to start another one right here in our Printer’s Row neighborhood:

Easy writing exercises will help writers age 60 and older tell their stories of childhood, adventure, life’s losses and triumphs. The classis open to seniors at all levels — from those who would simply like to start keeping personal journals to those interested in writing a full-fledged memoir.

The course will meet in the Sanctuary at Grace Place, 637 S. Dearborn on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on February 5, February 12, February 26, March 5, March 12 and March 19 (note: no class on Thursday, February 19) The fee is $60, and space is limited, so sign up soon. You can use a credit card to register and pay online, and if you’d like to register using a check, no problem. Just email me at info@bethfinke.com for more information.

Writers do not have to live in our neighborhood to join this new class – we’re pretty close to all sorts of public transportation – and you don’t have to be a member of Lincoln Park Village or Renaissance Court to attend this one, either. If you live in the Chicago area, consider joining me for this new class — I’d love to hear your stories.

Book review: Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See”

AllTheLight

I usually avoid reading novels and short stories with characters who are blind. Too many fiction writers portray blind characters one-dimensionally — we’re either heroic or tragic, bumbling or, particularly lately, blessed with super-powers.

But Anthony Doerr isn’t like other authors.

One of the main characters in Doerr’s current best-selling novel All the Light We Cannot See is blind, but there’s much more to Marie-Laure LeBlanc than that. She grew up in Paris, her father is raising her on his own. The two of them evacuate to a village in Brittany called St. Malo after Paris is invaded by the Nazis, her father goes missing, and she’s a teenager by the time the Americans arrive on D-Day.

Doerr writes in third-person, and his chapters are very short — they swing back and forth between the changes young Marie-Laure is enduring in France and those that Werner Pfennig, an orphaned teenager in Germany, faces when placed in an elite Nazi training school there during WWII.

The author avoids using visual descriptions in the chapters about Marie-Laure, since they are written from her point of view. So here’s a question for you blog readers who’ve read the book already: I bet you can describe Marie-Laure’s beloved Papa , but any idea what he looks like? Probably not, because the author never tells us that. There is little, if any, visual description of Étienne or Madame Manec (the pair Marie-Laure and her Papa live with in exile) either, yet readers come to know these characters very well, too. Here’s an example from early in the book, before Marie-Laure’s cigarette-smoking Papa goes missing:

Every time she comes within earshot, Marie-Laure hears the “Pfsssst!” of her father lighting another match. His hands flutter between his pockets.

Afternoons he repairs things around Étienne’s house: a loose cabinet door, a squeaking stair board. He asks Madame Manec about the reliability of the neighbors. He flips the locking clasp on his toolcase over and over, until Marie-Laure begs him to stop.

Marie-Laure doesn’t have to be able to see her Papa to know he is anxious, and neither do we. If Marie-Laure could see, the author wouldn’t have pointed out that she sees the cabinet door he is fixing, he would have just said “he’s fixing a cabinet door.” And so, he doesn’t use extra words to point out Marie-Laure hears the squeaky cabinet door, either. We know he’s fixing the cabinet door the same way Marie-Laure would know, and that helps us stay right in her head and experience her life during WWII the way she is.

As I continued reading, I noticed how often Doerr chose the verb “find” rather than describe Mari-Laure “feeling through” something or “”touching” an object. Sounds simple, I guess, but to me, keeping it simple like this is brilliant. Over and over again, the author resists the temptation to sound trumpets to remind the reader that Marie-Laure can’t see, and that keeps readers in the moment. Here’s another example, this one from later in the book when Marie Laure is alone and escaping into the attic:

Only thing to do is climb. Seven runs up into the long triangular tunnel of the garret. The raw timbered ceiling rises on both sides toward the peak, just higher than the top of her head.
Heat has lodged itself up here. No window. No exit. No where else to run. No way out, except the way she has come.

The passage continues:

Her outstretched fingers find an old shaving bowl, an umbrella stand, and a crate full of who-knows-what. The attic floor boards beneath her feet are as wide across as her hands. She knows from experience how much noise a person walking on them makes.

Isn’t it something, the way that using senses beyond the visual can make writing more colorful? I’m hard at work on a book of what I’m learning from the memoir classes I lead, and now I just might borrow some of the verb choices and twists of phrase that Anthony Doerr used in All the Things We Cannot See in my own writing. Downright enlightening to learn that a sighted writer is teaching me new ways to describe the way I do things!

I’ll leave you with a quote from Marie-Laure near the end of All the Light We Cannot See. I especially related to this quote, and if you haven’t already, I heartily recommend you read this book. It’s très bien.

“When I lost my sight, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”

Our friends raised this adorable puppy for Leader Dogs

When our friend Mary Ivory told me early last year that she and her husband were going to volunteer to raise a puppy for Leader Dogs for the Blind, I asked if she’d be willing to write a blog post about the experience. Mary is a clinical professional counselor, social worker, life coach, and co-author of Parenting by Strengths: A Parent’s Guide for Challenging Situations — she’s a busy woman, but she said yes to my offer right away, feeling sure she’d find the time to write. 

And then, the puppy arrived.

Mike and Mary live on the 12th floor of our apartment building. Imagine how many trips they took up and down the elevator for house training – and that was just the beginning! Mary explains it all in this lovely guest post.

Puppy raising: it changes the street life

By Mary Ivory

Everybody say aaaahhhhhhh! That's Ananda at a very young age taking a nap.

Everybody say aaaahhhhhhh! That’s Ananda at a very young age taking a nap.

My laid-back husband Mike came home one day in early November sounding defeated. “I just walked up the street and no one said ‘Hi’ to me!” We’d been living with Ananda, a female Black Labrador Retriever for ten months, and we’d just returned her to Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Mich., two weeks earlier. Mike had forgotten what urban life without a puppy is like.

We live in a very friendly and close knit neighborhood, but it’s still the big city. Everyone is in a hurry and distracted with their own lives, but you have to slow down when you are walking a puppy, and when others see you with the puppy, they often slow down, smile and say hello, too.

Watching and knowing what a dog can do for a person’s quality of life is a bit of happy mystery. Watching and knowing what a trained service animal can do for a person who needs assistance is the mystery turned into a real miracle. I have always had animals in my life, and as life would happen, I found myself with time and energy to volunteer to raise a puppy for Leader Dogs. Lucky for me, Mike was agreeable to this adventure.

As the job title implies, puppy raisers are charged with creating an environment and focusing on skills to help a puppy become a candidate for a career as a leader — a guide dog for a blind or visually impaired person.

Puppy raising is about nurturing a calm and focused dog to prepare them for the actual skill training that takes place after they are returned. For the first months of life after they leave the litter they live in homes to learn such skills as becoming house broken, yes that means going outside hourly when awake when they are very small. Yes, that means even in the winter of the polar vortex you go for a walk. You also are taught how to teach calm walking on a leash, not easy when your pup is sweet and just full of friendly wiggles and licks, and the other ‘basics’ like sit, stay, come, no, heal, down……oh yes and ‘drop it’ or ‘leave it’ as she snuck a sock from the dirty clothes or found a stray chicken bone on the street.

Everybody say "thank you" to Mary, Mike and all the puppy raisers for all the schools. It's a tremendous and generous effort.

Everybody say “thank you” to Mary, Mike and all the puppy raisers for all the schools. It’s a tremendous and generous effort.

And all of this happens during all hours of the day, which means you walk down the street a lot. It’s a busy but fun time — strangers snap out of a distracted or grumpy state to talk about the dog, and people seemingly down on their luck rise up to chat about and pet a friendly puppy.

That mystery of connection with animals and people is powerful and amazing to me. My busy city street transformed into a small town lane during the ten months Ananda was living with us. And yes, it was hard to take her back to her career home. Ananda, which means joy or bliss in Sanskrit, was an intense and wonderful presence in our lives.

Today I got an email from the Puppy Development Department at Leader Dogs with this picture telling us she is progressing in her career training. We miss her but are so happy we had this chance to be a part of this great big task, and who knows? We may do it again. Next time, though, we’ll sign up when the dog doesn’t need hourly walks in deep freeze weather.

Interviewing someone without looking them in the eye

Unbroken

Turns out I’m in good company when it comes to interviewing people without seeing what they look like. Laura Hillenbrand (award-winning author of Sea Biscuit and Unbroken) and Fresh Air’s Terry Gross were both quoted in a New York Times Sunday Magazine story recently saying they actually prefer interviewing people that way.

The article explains that Hillenbrand has been sick with chronic fatigue syndrome since 1987. She has been mostly confined indoors ever since, and she doesn’t get out to do face-to-face interviews with the people she writes about. The New York Times Sunday Magazine article says most reporters would regard this as a terrible handicap, . “One hallmark of literary nonfiction is its emphasis on personal observation.” More from the article:

Hillenbrand found that telephone interviews do offer certain advantages. No one appreciates this perspective more than the radio host Terry Gross, who performs nearly every interview on her program, “Fresh Air,” by remote.

Terry Gross told the reporter that she began doing this out of necessity: The cost of bringing a guest to her studio in Philadelphia was simply too high. Now she believes there is intimacy in distance. “I find it to be oddly distracting when the person is sitting across from me,” she told the reporter. “It’s much easier to ask somebody a challenging question, or a difficult question, if you’re not looking the person in the eye.”

Hillenbrand never met Louie Zamperini face-to-face but she interviewed him for hundreds of hours over the phone while writing Unbroken, her story about his life. She said that doing the interviews without looking at Zamperini allowed her to visualize Zamperini in the time period of the book. “He became a 17-year-old runner for me, or a 26-year-old bombardier,” she said. “I wasn’t looking at an old man.”

I know what she means. Hearing the life stories of the memoir-writers in my classes every week without looking at them as they read? It has taught me something. Maybe, just maybe, we put too much stock in appearances.

Happy Birthday! (Or should I say “Bon Anniversaire!”),

Today, January 4, is the birthday of Louis Braille. He was born in France in 1809, and his father had a leather shop. Note to children: be careful out there! Three-year-old Louis lost his sight after playing with his father’s sharp tools and accidentally poking his eyes.

Louis Braille’s parents did what they could to give their son a normal life. He was the best student in his school, and he became an accomplished organist and cellist. When he was 15, he simplified an idea that had been used in the French army to send messages that soldiers could read in the dark, encoding individual letters rather than sounds. He represented each letter by a different arrangement of six dots packed close enough that each letter could be read by a single fingertip.

Today, reading and writing of Braille is something of a dying art. There are now far more audio versions of books than there are books printed in Braille, and there are software programs to convert written text into audio. Today fewer than 20 percent of blind children in this country learn to read Braille. Technology is cool, but how will these children ever learn to spell correctly? How will they know where to put commas, quotation marks, paragraph breaks and so on? I didn’t lose my sight until I was 26 years old, so I was fortunate to learn all of that when I could still read print. I’m not proficient in Braille now, but the little I know sure comes in handy when I want to confirm what floor I’m on when I get off an elevator or to label CDs, file folders and buttons on electronic devices at home.

S & S

You blog readers out there who have a print copy of Hanni And Beth: Safe & Sound on your bookshelf should pat yourself on the back. You know a good children’s book when you see it, and your purchase has helped create more Braille books for children: My publisher, Blue Marlin Publications donates a portion of the proceeds from sales of every print version of Safe & Sound to Seedlings Braille Books for Children, a small non-profit organization in Michigan that provides high quality, low cost Braille books for children.

Over the past seven years, Blue Marlin Publications has Seedlings Logodonated thousands of dollars to Seedlings.

By producing Braille books for children, Seedlings helps promote “literacy for the blind,” providing visually impaired children equal opportunity to develop a love of reading. Safe & Sound is one of the books available in Braille from Seedlings, which means I’ve been able to read parts of the book aloud at the presentations I’ve been doing since Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound was published in 2007.

To find out how to order a copy of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound in Braille, or to donate to Seedlings to help them create more books in Braille for kids, link to www.seedlings.org. Every ten dollar donation makes another Braille book possible.


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