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Writer Waking Up - A Publication Blog

On Letting Go...

Today's post concludes a three-part Q&A series I began a couple of months ago: I requested long-time writing friends to ask me the questions that came to mind when they read A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations. My interviewer for this post is Marjorie Hudson, author of the nonfiction narrative Searching for Virginia Dare and the story collection Accidental Birds of the Carolinas.

MH: How did you become a writer? What has writing brought you in your life?

CH: I only accidentally became a writer, but like many writers, I grew up with a big reading habit. Our little old house was stuffed with books, and I consumed them with the same enthusiasm I consumed candy. Really, those were similarly palliative obsessions. The house was packed full of tension and secrets, too, and curling up in a closet or a tree with a book was a sure-fire, temporary escape. All through my childhood my parents took us children to the public library every week. I checked out as many books as I was allowed and made sure to read them all before the next visit. I started with picture books, of course; I adored Dr. Suess--all that rhyming and lively language rhythm made me giddy. I developed an odd fascination with books that categorized things, especially animals. I devoured big picture books of facts on every breed of dog, cat, horse, chicken--seriously: chickens. At home, I was reading the World Book Encyclopedia cover to cover, a set of 25 volumes from the early 1950s with tiny print and black-and-white photos. I think I wanted to know everything there was to know without quite realizing that was my goal.  Read More 
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On ambivalence, and its gifts...

In today's post, I present part two of a three-part Q&A series, in which I've asked long-time writing friends for the questions that came to mind when they read A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations. The questions below came from novelist Marian Szczepanski, author of Playing Saint Barbara, and a creative writing teacher at Writespace in Houston and the Writers' League of Texas in Austin.

MS: Have you ever felt conflicted or ambivalent about chronicling events such as emotionally charged or challenging family situations that involve other people, particularly those who are still alive and may read your book?

CH: This is an interesting question because I've been asked many times how family members, etc., feel about the book, but no one has asked me about my own emotional response to writing about real as opposed to imagined people.
When I first realized that I was going to have to write a memoir, I felt sick. By "have to," I mean that every time I sat down to write fiction I found myself writing pages and pages of introspective self-examination embedded in recollected stories about the people and events in my life that confounded me. By "sick," I mean actually nauseated and definitely terrified. But, given the first condition--nothing coming through the writing pipeline but my own intense need to make sense, or try to, of my life to that point, the second condition--discomfort and doubt with the project ahead of me--was simply something I had to wade through day by day at the writing desk. I mean, are there any writers who don't feel that way, at least sometimes, at the start of a writing project, fiction or nonfiction? Read More 
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On the role of Buddhism in this memoir

In today's post, I begin a three-part Q&A series. I asked long-time writing friends to ask me the questions that came to mind when they read A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations. I begin with questions posed by poet Karen Whalley, author of The Rented Violin.

KW: When I read your work, I see part of the beauty in your essays as being a sparse, purposeful pairing of imagery and commentary, and I'm wondering whether your Buddhist practice has perhaps informed your work.  Read More 
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Launch Amid Life

The three launch events for my just-released memoir were marvelously fun--the result of weeks of planning, networking, and selfless giving by friends and writers. In the span of four weeks I read from and talked about my book amid colleagues and students in southern California at my job in a low-residency MFA program; in my hometown indie bookstore before 40 friends and a wine-and -cheese reception; and, most recently, under the cardboard cutout gaze of Southern iconic writer Thomas Wolfe at the memorial his mother's boarding house has become. At all three events I had my right knee wrapped in a big black Velcro brace. In each case it hurt a little to stand for the required hour or so. At all three events I chose my dress with care and put some effort into hair and makeup (something I seldom do, but for public appearances appearance has always been, for me, part of the program), all while admonishing myself not to care that the ugly brace spoiled the effect.

Three days after the last event and less than a week ago as I type this, I had outpatient surgery to repair a torn meniscus. My days since the surgery revolve around the slow and awkward mechanics of post-operative grooming and thrice-daily sets physical therapy exercises.  Read More 
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On the experience of launching...

The thirty days have passed. The book is launched. A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A Memoir in Four Meditations is in the world: in the hands of friends and strangers, on booksellers' shelves, and--just a few days ago--mounded before me for signing at my local independent bookstore, Malaprop's in Asheville.

How do I feel? My whole face is one enormous, goofy grin in the photo from the book signing. One of the many congratulatory comments when I posted that photo on Facebook said, "You sure look happy."

I am happy. But I am also chagrinned by the attention. Yes, honestly, I am. Writers are known to be weird and one of the particular ways I'm weird is this combined compulsion to a) share my truths by writing about them while b) wishing to not impose myself on others. I want people to have the choice to read or not read my book, but to make that choice, people have to know the book exists, and thus, nowadays, it's part of my job as author to create that visibility.

To aspire to write a book and then to persevere in writing it to completion is an existential feat. And to get a book published is a huge lucky break after--usually-- another feat of perseverance and courage: a years-long search and dozens if not hundreds of rejections. That I've managed to achieve this twice (the memoir is my second book) is almost a miracle. So, yes, I am happy. I am amazed.

I am also transformed. Or at least transforming. Let me try to explain that.

One of the values I was raised with was never to be beholden to anybody. I'm not sure if this arose from my parents' Depression-era privations or the grit of their hard-scrabble Appalachian ancestors, but the message came down to me like this: Don't owe anyone anything. Avoiding indebtedness had to do with money, yes, but equally with favors or attention. Don't ask for help. Don't call attention to yourself. Keep quiet, keep your head down, and keep working. Read More 
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The About-to-Be Memoirist...

I never meant to write a memoir. You know how it feels, don't you, to find yourself doing--with joy, satisfaction, and deep surprise-- something you knew you would never do? I hope you do. It's a healing, humbling, enlarging experience. Writing A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice has made me bigger, calmer, kinder. Now, having had the very good fortune to find a publisher, Apprentice House Press, I am doing something else I never imagined myself doing: I am promoting a memoir. In just 30 days from today the memoir will officially release and I'll be publicly shepherding into the world a book about which I cannot say, It's fiction. I made all that stuff up.

I've written fiction, or tried to, for over 20 years. A novelist friend said she couldn't understand anyone's urge to write memoir. Quite a few people, writers and non-writers, have given me the equivalent of raised eyebrows--whatever they said or didn't say--when they learned my second book (the first one was a novel) is memoir. There is, that vibe suggests, something just a tad trashy about writing one's own story.

Maybe underlying that judgment--in the instances there is judgment--is a good, honest, existential question: What have you done that's worth writing about?

Do you have a tabloid-dark secret to reveal? Have you accomplished something marvelous you've kept hidden until now?

The answer, to all three questions, is no, and also yes. We all have dark secrets, if not in our own lives then in the lives of our loved ones. And we have all done something marvelous, in simply rising to the occasion of staying alive. These truths I learned while reading from the pages of my memoir in draft to small groups of colleagues and strangers at conferences, symposia, and residencies. I shared true stories of my life and my family's lives with trepidation of two sorts: Who cares? and, What will they think of me?

People were moved. They connected. People came up afterward to tell me what had happened to them, their parents, their children, their friends. They were grateful, they said, to hear that others had had similar experiences and doubts and revelations. They felt less alone and less shamed about their own vulnerabilities, their embarrassments, and their tenderness toward life, death, gain, loss.

Of course I'm sure that not everyone who heard me read those pages was moved. I'm equally sure that not everyone who feels motivated to buy and read the book will feel touched. But what I learned from those who did connect with my true stories was that the stories were worth the telling. Worth it to me, because I grew. And worth it to some readers, because they felt comforted and sustained.

The next challenge--my next growth opportunity--will be sticking up for those stories in front of a larger audience, by offering my memoir to the public without flinching. I must give up doubting the book's worth. And give up protecting my ego from judgments, spoken or unspoken.

There is a line of Buddhist teaching stating that to dissolve one's ego is the greatest gift to others, since it is in the absence of tending one's own ego that one has the space and the clarity with which to truly pay attention to others. I do not claim to have dissolved my ego. But I do understand that bringing this particular book into the world is an opportunity to work on that. Read More 
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