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Do You Need to Be Smart To “Get” Memoir?

Ever start a post and just know deep down you’re going to ruffle feathers?

Ever start a post when you’re half asleep but it’s the only free time you have available to you? Ever do so and hope and pray that the spelling mistakes aren’t too atrocious? That your readers will be forgiving?

You see where I’m going with this, right?

The other day I made a stupid move and checked my reviews on Amazon. Unless you’re reading the glowing reviews for a bit of a motivational boost, don’t bother reading the 3 star and lower reviews. I’m not afraid of critique…when it’s constructive. And anything lower than a 4 star review on Amazon will more than likely not be constructive. It will be hurtful, hateful and probably leave you in tears. This touches on a much bigger issue involving the validity and power of Amazon reviews; another post for another day.

After reading the not-so-glowing review of my book, I decided to do what (I hope) many other authors do: head to the Amazon pages of some of our favorite best-selling authors and read their horrific 1 and 2 star reviews. Yeah, this is playground mentality, but it works.

I decided to read a couple of reviews on some very popular memoirs. Sidebar: popular does not mean good. 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight are perfect examples of popular not being good.

But is there a difference between popular fiction and popular memoirs and what it takes to read AND comprehend them?

I think so.

I think – and this might be the feather ruffling part – that it takes a certain level of education or intelligence to “get” a good memoir. Why? Because when you look at the reviews of some of the most popular memoirs, the bad reviews have a theme wherein they attack the basic premise of the memoir, missing the point entirely.

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Take these reviews, borrowed directly from Amazon,  of “The Middle Place” by Kelly Corrigan.

As so many have written, the author is a whiny self-indulgent adult who needs to grow up. The world appears to revolve around her and she appears to be the only one who knows what should take place, who to contact etc and how people should act or believe.”

Rebuttal: She does need to grow up…which is exactly what being in “the middle place” is all about. When do we separate ourselves from being someones child to transitioning to being an equal, and eventually, a caretaker? How many of us have looked at our kids and thought, damn, am I really a parent? Am I really responsible for another human life? And once you do have the life-altering realization that you are way to grown-up to be called a child, do you in fact stop being a child to your parents? This is the deep, probing question the author has chosen to explore in her memoir. And doing so isn’t always pretty. In fact, it takes a lot of guts to write about your worst traits. It takes a lot of courage to face them and move forward.

“My book club read this memoir and all nine of us disliked it. Not one of us thought this was the inspiring memoir of a breast cancer survivor – which is what we expected. If you like reading light, fluffy stuff about people you don’t know, then you may enjoy this book.”

Rebuttal: If memoirs are only full of dark and never full of light, they are terrible. They would be sent back by any editor for massive rewrites. Memoirs serve to put readers in someone else’s shoes to a point. Readers want to feel, not drown. A depressing story does not make for a good memoir. “The Middle Place” is not first and foremost meant to be a story about surviving cancer. Kelly’s cancer and her father’s recurring cancer are the catalysts that drive her transition. The survival is definitely in this book, but it is the secondary focus.

And finally…

“As someone else mentioned, this book is not about going through the experience of having cancer. The author probably framed it that way to increase her chances of having it published. I don’t know how many people would run out and buy a book if it was touted as a book about a spoiled, self-centered child-woman who is as bratty as a two-year old.”

OUCH!

Rebuttal: Um, read the back of the book? Again, cancer is the catalyst, not the main character. She was published because she wrote a brilliant and insightful memoir. Kelly certainly shows us her bratty side…as well as her loving side, her nurturing side, the parts of her that feel fear and grief. Showing her bratty side is what makes her vulnerable and real. If she was a saint, no one would buy it. Sorry, but having cancer does not give you an automatic sainthood card! Showing the bratty side is necessary for us to see her growth by the end of the book.

My point is, I think that good memoirs fall into a class of books above pop culture fiction. They aren’t dime a dozen Tom Clancy novels that anyone with a basic level of education can read and enjoy. Memoirs are incredibly difficult to write because unlike a mystery or a romance, which have a distinct outline of how they should be written, memoirs mix up the undeniable rules of writing to create a new genre. Unlike fiction, memoirs can’t be overly dramatic, sappy or emotional. They have to walk a line between real and imaginative. They have to make readers feel without making those readers feel duped.

Go look at other reviews for popular memoirs and you will notice a trend. The majority of negative reviews out there simply don’t “get” what they read.

Do you agree? Disagree? By all means, let me know what you think!

It’s about Faith, Not Church

Yesterday we took Ben to Mound’s Spirit of the Lakes parade. It was a much calmer experience than taking him to the Minneapolis Pride Parade last month, but still a good time with the family.

There were several church floats in the parade. One had volunteers using the very clever line “Do you enjoy fishing?” to give them an opening to hand out these:

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A very nice old man noticed the three of us sitting behind the sidewalk in the grass, feeding Ben, and made his way through the crowd to ask Dustin if he liked to fish. “Trying wearing this the next time you go fishing,” he said. I took the baggie from him because Dustin had his hands full with a hungry Ben. “Do you have a church affiliation?” he asked. We said no.

“What’s holding you back?”

More than we could ever discuss on a crowded street during a parade, sir. But I told him one part of the truth. “Our son was born premature. We couldn’t take him out of the house to go anywhere for the first few months of his life.” In fact, churches were on the top of the list of places we were not supposed to take a preemie. Confined spaces, cold and flu season, and lots of well-meaning people who want to see and greet and touch a cute baby = health hazard.

But it’s more than that.

We would need to find a church that views women as equals and not servants. We would need to find a church that practices what it preaches and accepts everyone from all walks of life, including but not limited to accepting gay people. Not in the “love the person, cure the disease” bullshit that some churches teach.

We would need to find a church that gives more than it takes. We cannot stand churches that spend billions of dollars on their fancy buildings but give very little back to the community or congregation.

But what I really wanted to tell this nice man was that you don’t have to be in church to have church. You can walk the walk and reach more people than talking the talk. To this man, not having a church affiliation meant that we were lost. (I’m assuming of course, but this is a common mistake among those dedicated to a church, at least in my experience.) We are not lost.

Usually I find the things I am about to post silly and cliché and overly sentimental. But this is exactly how I feel about being Ben’s mom. This comes from faith, not from a church.

Did you ever wonder how mothers of premature babies are chosen? Somehow, I visualize God hovering over Earth, selecting his instruments for propagation with great care and deliberation. 

As he observes, he instructs his angels to take notes in a giant ledger. “Armstrong, Beth, son. Patron Saint, Matthew. Forrest, Marjorie, daughter. Patron Saint, Celia. Rutledge, Carrie, twins. Patron Saint. . .give her Gerard. He’s used to profanity.” Finally, he passes a name to an angel and smiles. “Give her a preemie.” 

The angel is curious. “Why this one, God? She’s so happy.” “Exactly,” smiles God. “Could I give a premature baby a mother who knows no laughter? That would be cruel.” 

“But does she have the patience?” asks the angel. “I don’t want her to have too much patience, or she’ll drown in a sea of self-pity and despair. Once the shock and resentment wear off she’ll handle it. 

“I watched her today. She has that sense of self and independence so rare and so necessary in a mother. You see, the child I’m going to give her has a world of its own. She has to make it live in her world, and that’s not going to be easy.” 

“But Lord, I don’t think she even believes in you.” God smiles. “No matter, I can fix that. This one is perfect. She has just the right amount of selfishness.” The angel gasps, “Selfishness? Is that a virtue?” God nods. 

“If she can’t separate herself from the child occasionally, she will never survive. Yes, here is a woman whom I will bless with a child less than perfect. She doesn’t know it yet, but she is to be envied. 

She will never take for granted a spoken word. She will never consider a step ordinary. When her child says momma for the first time, she will be witness to a miracle and know it. I will permit her to see clearly the things I see, ignorance, cruelty, prejudice–and allow her to rise above them. She will never be alone. I will be at her side every minute of every day of her life because she is doing my work as surely as she is here by my side.” 

“And what about her Patron Saint?” asks the angel, his pen poised in the air. 

God smiles. 

“A mirror will suffice

And Sometimes, You Find Yourself.

Ben and I made a stop at Goodwill today to look through the .20 toddler Thursday discounted books and the 50% off discounted toys. His physical therapist suggested buying him some taller toys to use for some of his exercises. Ben is now the proud owner of a set of stacking rings that are currently drying in the dish rack after a thorough washing.

While we were flipping through books, a mom and two little boys joined us in the aisle. This woman was so clearly a mom, through and through. Even if she hadn’t had her kids with her, I would have known she was a mom. She set her youngest down on the ground with his blanket (I think he had just woken up from a nap in the car) while reminding her older son that sometimes they won’t be able to find any books and that they could always try again next week.

The older son, who was probably five or six, began rummaging through each book, one at a time, his eyebrows furrowed behind his adorable glasses. If you’ve ever looked for books at a Goodwill you know how tightly packed together they are. This kid was clearly on a mission.

As the younger boy perked up, he noticed Ben and smiled at us behind his pacifier. He waddled over to the stack of board books on the ground and picked up a Baby Einstein book, indicating that it was for the baby. His brother, not wanting to be left out, came over to us and said, “We’re looking for Star Wars books. Sometimes we can’t find any, but we have to look through everything to know what they’ve got.” Apparently the quest for Star Wars books was a family project.

I watched as this woman expertly kept one eye on her toddler and the other on the books, determined to find a Star Wars book for her son. Anyone could see that a successful trip to the book aisle would mean the world to this mom.

I wonder how this woman spent her Thursdays before she had two little boys to care for. I wonder which books she would have searched for, had she had a moment of time for such indulgences. I wonder if she ever thinks this way and if she misses shopping for her without two little children at her heels.

I wonder if I’m the only one who thinks about such things while my own baby is strapped to my chest, babbling away, unaware that the momma who is holding him close existed as something else entirely before he came along.

I was almost done looking for books when I noticed a Yoda and Friends board book. “I don’t know if this is too young, but…” I slid it slyly toward her so she could make the call.

“Nothing is too young,” she said, taking the book and showing it to her son. “Benjamin, look what this lady found!” Big Benjamin smiled at me.

“Your name is Benjamin? What a coincidence. My baby’s name is Benjamin, too!”

More smiles. “What do you say to Benjamin’s mommy?” Big Benjamin’s mom coaxed.

“Thank you! I think I should look where you’re looking” Big Benjamin said, and then he stepped in front of me, convinced that a gold mine of Star Wars books was awaiting.

It struck me (Benjamin’s mommy) as we walked from the store that I already was that mom. My mission of the day wasn’t about me, it was about finding Ben toys he needed. This momma thing sneaks up on me when I least expect it. Here I am, watching a woman who radiates mother as if I didn’t do the same.

I hope Big Benjamin found more Star Wars books than he could carry.

I hope his mom gets ten minutes to herself today, wherever she is.

Two Craniocap (Helmet) Summer Must Haves

Ben had another craniocap adjustment today. The doctor looked him over and reminded me (as if I didn’t already know) that it’s imperative that he wear this helmet 23 hours a day whenever possible – however, he understands that this is extremely difficult to do during the summer months. Those helmets are light but they certainly hold in the heat! Ben’s head is always sweaty and if we don’t wash the helmet every day, both Ben and the helmet get very stinky!

If your child has been recently diagnosed with plagiocephaly and you’re awaiting the arrival of a helmet, or if your child is already in a helmet and you’re miserable trying to keep him comfortable in the summer heat, here are two products that you simply must try. They are lifesavers!

Rompers. I know we could just toss Ben in a onesie and go, but I like the idea of him having some of his legs covered where possible. He just seems more comfortable having something over his chunky thighs when I put him in our Becco, or when he’s placed in the car seat or stroller. Rompers – those full body, short sleeve/shorts outfits – have been our summer wardrobe staple. Ben still gets to wear cute outfits while staying comfortable and cool. I’m not really sure why, but he stays cooler in a romper than he does in a onesie and shorts. We found a stack of them during a Once Upon a Child clearance sale for $.50 – $1! Score!

Frogg Toggs Chilly Cooling Pad. Two of my friends with babies suggested these to me, and I was happily surprised to find that this chilly pad does exactly what it promises! God only know what it’s made out of to work the way it does, but run this towel under cold water, wring it out and enjoy the comforts of a cool cloth for hours. We put this behind Ben in the stroller and it helps to keep him cool while being able to wear his helmet for a bit longer than normal while outside. And once he’s out of his helmet I know we’ll keep on using this to keep him cool during summer months. Totally worth the $13!

frgtgg

Dear Indie Author

sarahsolmonson:

All of this. Exactly.

Originally posted on Tricia Drammeh:

Dear Indie Author,

Congratulations on your amazing accomplishment. You’ve written a book, which is an incredible achievement. I’m so proud of you!

Unfortunately, I was not able to review your book. I know how important reviews are, so I really hate that I can’t give you that glowing, five-star review you were looking for. I enjoy our interaction on Facebook and I think you’re a really nice person. Rather than embarrass you by leaving a two-star review, I decided to contact you in private instead. I hope we can still be friends.

When I downloaded your book during its Kindle Free weekend, I had every intention of reading it. I really did. Your cover is gorgeous and the blurb is very intriguing. I couldn’t wait to dive right in. I’m sorry, but the story didn’t grab me. There were so many errors, it became distracting. Whether was confused with weather. There

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How Often Do You Use Longhand?

I bought a new notebook (ah, the joys!) for my new job and over the past few weeks I’ve taken several pages of notes. I write neat, I write sloppily, I cross things out, I draw arrows and stars, boxes and underlines and best of all, I turn the page and run my hand over the bumpy pattern the ink has left on the paper.

I’ll easily admit to being a paper nerd, a pen junkie. But even as someone with an above-average love for paper and the many writing utensils available for use, it wasn’t until I was reviewing my notes tonight while I worked that I realized just how little I write longhand.

When I was younger, I would journal every day, multiple times a day. It didn’t strike me as daunting or as work to write five, six even ten pages by hand every day. With the evolution of technology and the presence of a computer (or computers) in each household, you would think that writing would become faster and more proficient.

But truthfully? I used to produce more pages by longhand per day than I typically produce per day now using a computer. Sure, I didn’t have a job or a baby back in those days, but my gut tells me that the physical act of bringing pen to paper is part of what sparked my love of writing in the first place.

I started doing some trusty Googling and sure enough, there is quite a bit out there about the perks (and some drawbacks) of writing longhand – specifically writing first and even second drafts of books by longhand.

I am seriously considering writing my next book longhand.

My only two fears are that a)my hand will cramp up before my mind/energy does and b) that it will take FOR-EV-ER to finish a draft.

But…

What if writing a book longhand is easier because a notebook is super portable? Time is even more valuable these days, and there have been plenty of times when I’ve pulled into the driveway with a snoozing baby in his car seat when I’ve thought, Damn, if only I had my computer in the car I could get some writing done. Once I go inside, baby wakes up. What if I could sit for another half hour in the car, windows down, and write?

What if writing longhand really does break down barriers in creativity and squelches the inner-critic? What if I polish up the cursive I was required to use for the entire 5th grade, which I find lovely and still use to this day regardless of the fact that it may be all but gone from school by the time Ben gets to kindergarten?

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What if it takes less time to get a draft done because I’m not a slave to my Word doc buried inside my cumbersome laptop? What if it takes a little longer physically, but less time when you consider that I don’t get writing time in every day right now. If I wrote by hand, even in small bursts, I really wouldn’t have any excuse not to fit in a few sentences here or there.

What do you think? Do you ever write anything longhand anymore, or has all your writing from grocery lists to Christmas letters gone digital?

 

Week 28: Pride and Independence for Ben-B-Jamin

Week 28: Pride and Independence for Ben-B-Jamin

Are you sick of me saying “what a week!” yet? Sorry to fall back on that expression, but I’m exhausted and can’t come up with anything better.

Let’s begin.

This week included Ben’s first Twin Cities Pride and his first 4th of July. Both were quite the celebration!

Pride was the usual crazy scene that it always is. Ben did fabulously during the parade, watching with interest and napping when sleepy. He was quite the charmer to the people around us, smiling and giggling at everyone who caught his eye.

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The best part of the day was when Emmett fell asleep on Hennepin Ave. Eric had the brilliant idea that this picture should be re-created every year. I wholeheartedly agree.

Or maybe the best part was exposing Ben to a lifestyle of choice, equality and respect. Yeah, let’s go with that.

Tia, Eric and Emmett came over on the 4th for our traditional day of relaxing, chilling in Excelsior, playing in the backyard and a bonfire to end all bonfires – we finally torched our Christmas tree! Are we redneck or what?

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Aren’t our little beach babes adorable? It’s crazy how last year we were all joking about this year, and how we’d have babies to care after. Now that they’re here and they were part of our day, it’s sort of hard to remember a time when it wasn’t the 6 of us.

Ben has been working hard on his PT exercises and at his last appointment we went over strengthening exercises to help him pull his left arm out from under his tummy. If we help him roll to his tummy his arm inevitably gets stuck and he’s just not strong enough to work it out from under him. As he becomes more mobile in his sleep and as he starts to sleep on his side I’ve been very concerned that he will roll and get stuck – the extra bulk of the helmet just adds to my worries.

On the 4th, Ben was laying on his big blanket in the backyard when he rocked and almost rolled from back to tummy. He was stuck on that arm, teetering between falling back to the ground and making a successful roll. We cheered him for a minute or so while he stared at us smiling and then suddenly….HE ROLLED OVER AND PULLED HIS ARM UP! While we were freaking out his rolled back to his tummy.

I picked that little boy up and told him how proud I was of him while I fought back tears. I don’t think I’ve been moved to proud tears since he was in the NICU and made big strides like eating a few more millilitres than the day before. His doctor and PT said Ben probably wouldn’t even show an interest in rocking or an ability until he reached 8-9 months adjusted age.

I know there’s a lot of people who either don’t understand or don’t believe in “adjusted age”. This is just another frustration of a preemie parent. Obviously the charts and guidelines provided by doctors are just that, a guide, and kids are going to reach their milestones when they are good and ready.

But for a preemie parent, or a parent with a kid in physical therapy, you have to listen to what the specialists say. You can hope for progress before their expectations, but without their guidelines I think you could easily find yourself frustrated or depressed. Guidelines turn in to goals and help us navigate this world of always knocking off the amount of time our babies were born early – because it DOES matter, for some more than others.

So to see our baby, who has worked so hard, do something we weren’t hoping for until…November? We were some pretty proud parents.

And then the reality set in that we are on the cusp of having a “mover”.

Shit.

So not ready to baby proof!

As with all holiday weekends, time went too fast. We spent Saturday at the zoo where Ben almost had his toes nibbled on by hungry goats at the family farm exhibit. Saturday night Dustin and I handed Ben over to his aunt Katie and her babysitter-in-training girls so we could go see Halestorm at the Taste of Minnesota. It felt much different standing in a crowd with mosh pits and crowd surfers at this Halestorm show than the one we went to in May 2013 the day I found out I was pregnant…!

We didn’t get to bed until after midnight, and our baby and Dustin’s alarm clock woke us up at 5:30a.m.

YAWN! I’m doing 45 more minutes of work (which will probably be more like 2 hours, because I’m special that way) and dragging my butt to bed.

Hope you all had as wonderful a long weekend as we did!

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