Being Thankful for the Truth

It’s been almost three years since I’ve sold a manuscript. Thirty-two months, to be exact. These years have been rough, in various ways, but this isn’t a pity-party post. Rather, it’s about embracing the truth of your situation.

I’m a fighter by nature. I fight over little things and significant things, and I often win. Not because I’m petty, but because the things I fight for matter to me, and at least in my mind, are of importance.

Recently, though, both personally and professionally, I have lost numerous battles and the losses have left me wounded. I have had to take stock of so much of what I believed to be true and come to terms with how wrong I have been.

I know in this world today, with recent hurricanes and raging fires, that my struggle is insignificant. I have family and friends who love me, a roof over my head, and employment. That’s plenty. But I still feel what I feel, and have had to struggle to make heads or tails of my situation.

When it comes to writing, I’m down. I can’t explain why my manuscripts don’t sell, even when they come so close. I have no crystal ball about what the market wants, what readers need. I only know how to tell the stories I tell. They are not pretty. They are not always upbeat. They don’t always provide black and white scenarios in which readers can rally behind. I don’t believe anything in this world ever works that way. There is so much gray. I write about that gray, for good, for bad.

And yet, even though I’m down, I’m not out. I am happy to know the truth, to have been able to reconcile where I stand, to understand the lack of power I have, that the lost fight isn’t always because of my personal failure. I hold no more delusions. To some, that may seem like a loss of hope. That’s not even close to the case. My hope springs eternal, but it is tempered.

At signings, my signature line for Press Play is “Truth, whatever the cost.” I have always believed Greg would like that, and I think only now do I understand why.

So, as we belly up to our Thanksgiving tables, and as so many families do, we offer up what we are thankful for, know that mine is the truth. I’d rather know where I stand in this world, than to believe I am on some other footing. Of course, current truth isn’t always fixed, and this situation is certainly dynamic. But for now, what I have learned from these recent set of circumstances has provided a clarity I have never had before. As the saying goes, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward” (Law).

Well played, life; well played.

Enjoy your holidays, your time with family and friends, and whatever truths you embody, for the moment, or for a lifetime.

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NPR Interview with Laurie Halse Anderson

Not only did I have the great pleasure of attending the Inaugural Albany Book Fest this weekend, but I also had the chance to talk about teaching sexual violence with none other than Laurie Halse Anderson-you know the author of Speak. It was an excellent conversation, and one I think could spark great discussion in the classroom for educators who teach the novel or about the topic. Here’s the article I that I wrote if you’re interested in that, and if you have seven minutes to spare, give a listen. It will be time well spent (click the image or link below).

https://www.npr.org/2018/09/30/653160035/teaching-high-school-students-about-sexual-assault-through-literature

Hey, everybody! I know, it’s been a long time since I’ve had anything to say, but life has been super busy, and the summer flew by. However, now that we’re back into the New Year (seriously, isn’t September more like a new year than January?), I have an event coming up.

Not just me, as you’ll see by the lineup. The Inaugural Albany Book Fest kicks off in two weeks. The main event is Saturday, the 29th, from 10am-4pm, and is at UAlbany. All signings, readings, panels, etc. will be held indoors, so don’t fear any bad weather. 

Admission is free and the talent is vast, so come and check it out. The more that attend, the better next year will be. See you on the 28th!

P.S. Yes, I’m working on book news. No, I don’t have any yet. But trust me, I am working on it 🙂

Rockin’ Times at Rochester Teen Book Fest

The hype crew, getting the 2,500 in attendance ready.

Last year I posted about the Rochester Teen Book Fest and my awesome time attending with Albany High’s Book Club. In that post I said that I’d be back, and I meant it, and it happened, but this time with me as  part of the author lineup.

I joined 25 other authors and 5 teen authors for the festival above all other festivals. That’s not hyperbole. To walk into the gymnasium at Nazareth College (bedecked in a cape no less), following a drum line, and take a seat in front of thousands of teens and librarians and teachers was a bit breath-taking. But volume isn’t everything. I’ve attended similarly sized events, and they did not match the intensity and fervor with which the audience reacted to the authors on stage. Some say that reading is dead or dying, but if the pulse at Nazareth is any indication, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Presenting this year, instead of attending, was a blast. However, I would have thoroughly enjoyed listening to any number of the other authors (you checked the link above, right?) My team–I got a team–was on point and took care of everything, including enforcing the teen-first policy that makes Teen Book Fest so special (I’m looking at you Nick).

My man, Nick. A.K.A. “The Enforcer”

I extend a huge thanks to the teens who attended my sessions and let me ramble on about the fears I hold in life and in writing, which are many, and spout off about the various dumb choices I made as a teenager and how they’ve shaped my writing today. Someday I will write a story that includes those goldfish. They deserve a proper sendoff.  And to all who then bought my work, thanks for buying ALL the copies. It happened so fast, I truly don’t understand how. But no complaints, here. I’m just glad my work has found its way into so many new hands.

Hanging with the authors and librarians this year was phenomenal fun. When I get to have dinner with the likes of Brendan Kiely, Bill Konigsberg, John McGoran, Alisa Kwitney, and Taran Matharu, as well as have lunch and great conversation with Gloria Chao, only to then have drinks with Ellen Hopkins and Cyndy Etler, what more could I want? Well, more librarian time. My rowdy table of fantastic librarians, who were ready to party after executing one hell of a day, after one hell of a difficult year, was truly the icing on the cake. To spend time with these individuals, who have volunteered so much time–so much time–to make this incredible, teen-focused event a reality was wonderful to be a part of. Yes, our singing was terrible, and I couldn’t tell a cow from a pig, but the vibe that existed was a carry over from the vibe from the morning. There’s a reason Teen Book Fest is spectacular, and it’s not the authors, it’s the people who work behind the scenes to connect us with the teens. That’s my takeaway from this year, and something I’m proud to have experienced.

Awesome authors

Even more awesome, librarians and organizers that make up the TBF committee.

And so here’s hoping I’ll be invited back next year, so I can jump off more tables, do more cartwheels and hand springs, sign more shirts, tell more stories, and to again ask one question of the teens, who came up to the signing table, full of excitement and exhaustion: “Did you have fun today?”

And to hear the inevitable response, “It was the best!”

Yes, yes it was.

Hudson Book Fest at its Best

The tenth annual Hudson Children’s Book Fest was held this past weekend and it was phenomenal. The turnout was amazing, the energy over all things books was effusive, and I had nonstop traffic at my table.

This was my fourth year attending, and certain regularities have emerged, which I love. I have the best “table neighbor” any author could ask for. Jennifer Donnelly was next to me selling her ever-amazing books, including the perennial favorite A Northern Light, and her just-released, collaborative work, Fatal Throne

My awesome “table neighbor” Jennifer Donnelly. Go buy her work.

The teens in attendance have now read my work and have talked it up to their friends, who come and have serious conversations about which one to start with. Some end up buying all four, and some buy for friends who couldn’t attend, because they want a signed copy. It’s surreal to have conversations with them about my work, about the previous year, about following me on social media, and talking other books (both those for the classroom and for themselves).

I adore the English teachers and librarians, who come out every year scouting for new material, to have conversations about the industry, and to see if I have anything new coming (I do, I swear, I just don’t know when). Their dedication to their students is astounding, and I particularly enjoy the phrase I picked up this year: “They are not reluctant readers; they are dormant readers.” I am happy to have my work bring them out of hibernation.

Just a portion of the crowd at Hudson.

Then one of the best moments of the event happened, and somehow I have no selfies as proof. My first cooperating teacher from when I was student-teaching during graduate school came to my table. I knew exactly who she was, in spite of not having seen her in eighteen years. Talking to her was the best kind of blast from the past, and we have plans in the works for next year. It will be fun to return to Lisha Kill Middle School where it all started. So, thanks again, Laura.

In spite of the regularities, one thing was very different this year–I sold out of copies. I literally had only a handful of Tap Out copies left by 2:00. And that wasn’t due to under-ordering by Spotty Dog. They do a fantastic job of looking at sales from previous years and making the call. The demand was simply high, and I cannot thank all of the teens and parents and teachers enough for spending their money on my work, when the talent and stories available in that gymnasium were off the hook.

So, thank you again, to all the organizers, especially Jen and Lisa, and to all the volunteers–both the teens and adults, and to all the other authors and illustrators in attendance. What an opportunity to be in the mix of children, teens, and adults, all so very engaged with storytelling. It seems like we’re figuring out the next chapter, together.

P.S. If you were at Hudson Book Festival and want more, head to Rochester on 5/19. The annual Teen Book Fest will be a rollicking good time, and yes, I will be in attendance. See you there!

New Year, Same Process

It’s been three years since I’ve sold a manuscript. Not that I haven’t been writing them, trust me. I’ve actually written multiple drafts of three books, none of which have gone anywhere, yet. I am hoping that 2018 ushers in change on this front.

This is a post I haven’t wanted to write, but have known I should write. It’s difficult to admit one’s failures and, at least in my mind, I’ve been failing spectacularly for years. Fortunately, I am intelligent enough to know that I’m still okay, that failures do not equal Failure. But some days are easier than others when it comes to squaring up to this idea.

These three years of toil without tangible results have been interesting. I went from being positive about bouncing back to being incredibly humbled by my inability to do so. And yet, I’ve gone on school visits, have attended conferences and signings, all for my previous work and about the craft of writing. Those have all been bittersweet. Because how can I talk about writing, when I have published, but am not currently being published? It’s not as if I’ve produced some juggernaut best-seller, and can therefore, rest on my laurels and say, “Well, I did that.”

Far from it. I have consistently tried to push myself in terms of content and style. I demand more of my storytelling every time I approach a new draft or a revision. If I’m being honest , I’m working harder than I ever have. This is the way it should be. Craftsman know their craft, and can complete the simple steps, simply, but to achieve great status, they must also produce great pieces. I have the audacity to believe that I can and will produce great pieces. Therefore, the toil continues.

In the back of my mind, I know that this is how it is. I’ve read countless posts from other authors about their failed attempts (I think Sarah Dessen has somewhere in the neighborhood of 13 manuscripts that flopped). But because I have only enough time to write one or two books per year, when I flop, the setback is significant.

I do have hope hope for 2018, though. Last week I turned in a revised draft of my WIP, which I believe has a TON of potential. My agent has already read and loved another manuscript of mine, but that work is taking a backseat to this aforementioned WIP. Additionally, I will now return to a project I started this fall, one that is, hands-down, the most fun I have written. I’m sure it will be a disaster and will need to be revised in a multitude of ways, but that is the process.

For anyone out there reading this with an eye towards how publishing works, this is it. I am much more the norm than the outlier. In fact, I’m pretty damn lucky to be in the position I’m in–to have an agent who is still willing to work with me and nurture my talent, even when I’m stalled out.

It may be entirely cliched, but writing is like life: just because what you did the first time worked, doesn’t mean your second attempt will (or third or fourth or fifth). That’s just something that has to be accepted, and which is why I believe a lot of people get started in writing, but cannot see it through. The demands are extreme and the objectives ever-changing. Like I said, just like life.

I promise to return with updates when I have them. Otherwise, know that Monday through Friday, I’m at this desk from 4 am- 6 am, hoping to turn coffee into readable fiction. As always, thank you for reading my work, and for anticipating whatever’s next.

The Quest to remember Uncle Mike

Me driving, clearly not a Civic 😉

 

There are trips and there are vacations and there are journeys. My recent trek to Iowa for my Uncle Mike’s funeral services was none of these. It was a quest.

On Wednesday afternoon, my parents, my sister and her family of four, and my family of four, set off in the rented RV pictured below. Within the RV was a mixed bag of emotions. Excitement over something new (we’ve never taken this trip with our girls before), anxiety over the actual driving (the RV is 36 feet long and sways like a boat cresting a wave), and the very obvious grief and sadness that is part and parcel when attending the services for a loved one.

So, with that, we drove into the night, and through the next day, for a total of 26 hours. It was difficult, and an RV does not handle like a car, as much as I psyched myself up to believe it would be no more difficult to drive than my Civic. But with no more than a few bumps and bruises, we prevailed, hitting the one side trip we had scheduled before our final destination of Knoxville, Iowa.

Field of Dreams is a family favorite of ours because, Iowa. Also, that movie has a bit of magic interspersed, which makes you believe in a better world than this. Therefore, visiting the location where the movie was filmed, on a quest such as this, only made sense. Out there in the fields of Dyserville, Iowa, sits the field and home from the movie. We walked on the field and pretended to get swallowed up by the corn, and reveled in the beautiful breeze and patchwork sky, after so many hours on the road.

However, if you know the movie—or even better, the novel, Shoeless Joe—then you understand the import of the question within it that has become a bit of a tagline for the movie: “Is this heaven? No. It’s Iowa.” As my mother stood behind a wrought iron sign, twisted into this quote, with her granddaughters beside her, it was clear that this destination was not truly one of coincidence, but of necessity. She would be saying goodbye to her brother the next day, and the notion of him being in the afterlife, was soothed a bit by the rustling corn and the whispers on the wind.

We then drove the RV to our final destination, the Marion County Park in Knoxville, Iowa. Fortunately for my parents, they were met by my mother’s sister and husband and escorted to dinner and then to their hotel, while my brother-in-law and I tried to figure out the ins and outs of RV park living. Neither of us had ever done this before, but it worked out, and even though our New York license plate stuck out like a sore thumb amid the much more prevalent and local RVs, the people in the park were kind and considerate. We then settled in for the night, in preparation for the most difficult part of everything, the services the following day.

Now, through a bit of misunderstanding on my part, I did not know until the day we left on our quest that I would be delivering my uncle’s eulogy. Not a problem, except that when I write, I like the ability to be in an office, and to have coffee and white noise, and most importantly, time to write and revise. I had none of these available to me, except for coffee. Therefore, on Friday morning, I woke up early and got on my phone and started writing. I had the good fortune of my mother’s correspondence with my uncle’s colleagues and friends, and could then insert a bit of context and flavor of my uncle’s life in Iowa. I knew him as my uncle, but I also knew he was so much more than that. And if a eulogy is to meet any criteria, it is this: tell the story of the person’s life.

With Death Wish Coffee pumping through my veins, I secluded myself in the passenger seat at the front of the RV, while my daughters and nieces slept, and wrote for an hour. I then sent the draft to my wife for review and got on with the day. Because we had errands to run, my cousin’s son to entertain, and pieces of the services and after party to put together.

So, we went our separate ways, and then came back together for lunch at my Aunt’s house in Knoxville, and then all ten of us got ready for the services in my parents’ hotel room, which as you can imagine is no small feat. I found myself ironing my clothes in the hallway because the women needed their space.

Sadly, I’ve attended many wakes and funerals, all of them traditional Catholic events. However, my Uncle Mike was not a religious person. He was raised Catholic, but ultimately walked away from that faith. Therefore, the celebration of life service was a beautifully simple affair, with flowers and a slideshow and my uncle’s urn (not filled—I get to that in the eulogy). Family, friends, and community members all came and milled around and gave their condolences to my Aunt Deb and Mike’s children, Morgan and Troy, and then sat and told stories about Mike, or simply caught up with one another. There was no receiving line, no clergy, no prayers, just good music that Mike would have enjoyed playing in the background, hand-picked by my parents.

Cousins at the services

Then, it was time for the eulogy, and the funeral director gathered the room’s attention and I stood behind a podium at the front of the room, with the slideshow playing over my shoulders. And I read what I had written and hoped it was good enough for the people in attendance and for my uncle’s memory (the eulogy is at the end of this post). I feel like it went well, but after, people were invited to tell their own stories about Mike, and that was wonderful. People stood and told funny and poignant stories about my uncle, and it was how a remembrance should be—wrought with sadness, but underpinned with the joy of having known the person being celebrated.

While my uncle was in the hospital, and unable to breathe without direct flow oxygen, he entertained the people at his bedside, and sang songs that he loved, one of them being the Beatles’ classic “In My Life.” Therefore, at the very end of the services, the song was played and people were asked to sing along, and as chilling as it was to hear, it was also a beautiful way to end the celebration. There weren’t many dry eyes after, but that was the point.

From there, we all ventured to one of my uncle’s favorite local breweries, Peace Tree Brewery, for great beer and more stories and jokes and a couple hours of merriment, which my uncle would have adored.

Unfortunately, we left the brewery and went back to the RV park, and prepared for our departure the next day. We had achieved what we came to do; our quest was fulfilled. And now the journey home lay ahead.

We drove with a purpose and arrived home at 4:30 the next morning, for a total time of 20 hours of driving. We were exhausted, especially my brother-in-law, who took the last leg, and my sister, who was his co-pilot and in charge of keeping him awake. At some point, they must have turned on the radio. I don’t know when, because I didn’t hear it until I was fully awake, but when we turned the last bend into my sister’s neighborhood, one last song began on the radio. It was one of my uncle’s favorites, and in that moment, with our journey complete, the song made so much sense: “It Ain’t Me Babe”

Because we were no longer searching for anyone or for anything. We had achieved it, and I think my uncle gave us a tip of his hat with that song, thanking us for making the quest, for honoring his life. That’s what family does, and what we will continue to do.

Rest in Peace, Uncle Mike.

Mike’s Eulogy:

You’re lucky if in your life you know a handful of great men. Mike Gaffney was one of those great men. He was kind and empathetic and compassionate, and always punctual. Which is so ironic, considering he’s late to his own funeral (indeed, his cremains have not arrived yet)

Mike was a man comprised of grit and resilience. When he was 17, his father died, presenting a situation that often topples many. But you already know that’s not what happened. Thanks in large part to his mother, Gene, the support of his sisters, and later, his drinking buddy, who became his brother-in-law, my father, Tim, Mike forged on, and pursued academics to feed his brilliant mind. He found Psychology to be his calling. And wonderful for all of us, amid his academic pursuits, he also pursued Deb.

He created a wonderful life out here in Iowa, with Deb and the Rankin family, treating his patients, and then raising his children, Morgan and Troy, all while being “relentlessly accepting.” Because with grit comes a certain wisdom: regardless of how strong we are, we must also be malleable, so that we do not break. Mike had an ability to be humble, yet strong, kind, yet unrelenting. He was basically a superhero.

Because, with this beautiful life of his fully intact, he should have lost it after his biking accident, 15 years ago. And yet, he did not. Mike transformed himself all over again, relying on family and friends in ways he never wanted, but later came to appreciate in deep and meaningful ways.

And the accident changed him, altering how he saw life and those around him, and those he treated. Fortunately, he also got to become Papa Mike, and bask in the glow of a grandchild’s perception of him. If he didn’t wear a superhero cape before, he certainly did now.

Then, as we all know, Mike was besieged with another critical challenge, leukemia. He received the best medical care available and unbelievable support from his family. Mike came out of the other side of this care with an opportunity to be with his family once again. It was all worth it, if only for the brief time he was allowed to see his family and to assert his will one last time.

Mike lived by the adage “Never let common sense get in the way of opportunity.” He lived it, and if you consider it, we are all following in his footsteps. Our lives are all non-sensical aspirations of hope, bolstered by our grit and resilience. In this we are all like Mike.

There’s a lesson here and I think Mike would appreciate that we are using his life to teach us how to better our own. It’s this: we are stronger than we think, capable of more love and empathy than we think, and that we already possess the tools we need to forge our lives into something epic. We just need to believe in each other and especially in ourselves.