Year of Reading

I’ve been on an expedition of reading this year. In January, I committed myself to reading fifty books in 2016 and to using the Goodreads reading challenge tool to track my progress. I’m proud to say that as of June 30, I was right on track at 50% achieved. And that’s not counting the many articles, essays, and poems I’ve read in journals, magazines, and newspapers, both online and on paper.

I’m reading deliberately, in order to broaden my knowledge and understanding of literature and craft, and I’m also allowing myself to follow my deepest interests, which draws me toward certain books and away from others. There will never be enough time to read everything I’d like to be able to read in my lifetime. I have to make hard choices about what material I allow to take up my precious reading time. I purposely choose to alternate between genres and mediums. I purposely choose to read authors who are both similar to and different from myself in obvious ways. I purposely choose to read what interests me the most right now, at this point in my life and at this point in the history of the universe.

There is no way to consume the amount of information I would like to be able to digest. I find myself interested in so many varied topics and I’m not inclined in this moment to focus too long on any one thing. Still, there are patterns in my reading, ideas I return to or come at from different angles. Loss, being lost, choosing to get lost. How to move through the world, to be fully present without being destroyed, to participate in an authentic way. Connection. Fear.  Continue reading “Year of Reading”

Search, Research, Self, Connection

ROAR2013I used to think of myself as unique in a not-so-good way. I thought of myself as different from everyone else because of not being physically related to anyone. Of course, there were people out there who shared my DNA, I just didn’t know any of them. I saw myself as an anomaly that probably no one could understand.

Over many years of searching, reuniting, and processing the aftermath, I’ve done a lot of research on adoption. Of course, I didn’t think of it as research at the time. I only wanted to satisfy my curiosity, find answers to my many questions.

Along the way, I learned that I wasn’t unique the way I’d previously thought. I wasn’t alone in my condition. Actually, the exact opposite was true–I discovered I was of the Baby Scoop Era, a period of nearly thirty years when 4,000,000 or so babies were relinquished to adoption. I also found out that for no other reason than the year in which I was adopted, I was not entitled to see my own original birth certificate in Ohio.

Current law says that we who were adopted between 1964 and 1996 cannot see our birth records, but those adopted outside of this period can. Of course, I wanted to know why this was the case, so I searched some more and found that adoptee birth certificates were sealed in 1964. Before then, they had been accessible. And in 1996, they were opened again, but not retroactively.

A man named Brad Norris, an attorney from my hometown of Cleveland, had drafted the bill that eventually sealed my original birth certificate. Ironically, Brad was the father of Betsie Norris, who founded Adoption Network Cleveland, the organization that helped me find my own birth mother.

No, I was not unique. Betsie herself was adopted as an infant and went through a similar search to find her birth parents. She looked for the answers to her questions, and decided her calling was to advocate for adoptees and adoption reform.

Last spring, I chose the story of Betsie Norris, her adoptive father, Brad, and their relationship to Ohio’s law concerning adoptee birth certificates as the topic of a biography project for one of my graduate writing classes. A short version of that piece can be read on Lost Daughters. Talking with Betsie about her story has had a profound impact on my life: I see myself now not merely as one unique individual adoptee, but as a member of an entire community of people who must somehow navigate between two families, and sometimes even between two cultures or two countries. When I write about adoption now, I no longer write only for myself, but for the many others like me as well. My identity as an adoptee is not all of me, but at the same time, it is a part of everything I do.

Now Betsie is leading the fight to open records for those of us from Ohio who were adopted between 1964 and 1996. I’m doing what I can to support the passage of House Bill 61 and Senate Bill 23, although it never feels like enough. It’s hard to be out of state at a time like this when I’d like to do more. I am indebted to Betsie and all the others like her who have given so much of their time and energy to fight for my rights.

Book a Week: Devotion, by Dani Shapiro

This is a book I’ve been wanting to read for quite a long time. I loved Shapiro’s first memoir, Slow Motion, and I also love her blog, Moments of Being.

Devotion chronicles a spiritual journey, but not the kind I was expecting. There’s nothing artificial about her exploration of the Judaism she grew up with or the other disciplines she turns to–including buddhism, yoga, and even psychology. This is not immersion journalism. This is one woman’s personal search for real meaning in her life, and the very personal nature of her search is ultimately what makes the book universal.

Shapiro grew up with a father who was an Orthodox Jew and a mother who described herself as an atheist. Imagine the household. In utter confusion, Shapiro turned away from religion as an adult. But then she was left feeling unmoored. How many of us feel the same way?

I love how she describes herself as being complicated with Judaism. She rarely attended services and certainly didn’t practice the elaborate prayer rituals at home that her father had during her childhood. Yet she still described herself as Jewish. Her ancestors were Jewish. She commemorated the Jewish holidays. Though I no longer describe myself as Catholic, I understand what she means by “complicated” with it. I still put up a Christmas tree and color Easter eggs with my kids. There’s an aspect of religion that is family tradition, and this is the aspect I’ve kept alive for my own children. It would be impossible for me to ever completely abandon the Catholicism I was raised with.

But like Shapiro, I’ve been searching beyond the faith of my childhood for something that makes sense in my adult life. I’m not able to simply accept the religion of my youth without question, yet I’m also not fulfilled without a sense of deeper meaning in my life besides the endless pursuit of possessions and bragging rights. Devotion inspires me to find my own center, to keep working toward true balance in my life, and to consider that a u-turn on my current road may be required.

As a writer, I’m stimulated by Shapiro’s precise narrative, so structured yet always in touch with the core of emotion in every situation. I would describe the format of this book as a series of essays, most of which are fairly brief. At times it even seemed more like one long prose poem in 102 stanzas. It’s the kind of book I’d love to one day have the skill to write myself.

Now I’m anxious to read her novels. Dani Shapiro is becoming one my favorite authors.

Robert Lee Brewer: The New Definition of Editor

(I interviewed Robert Lee Brewer for an assignment in the Professional & Academic Editing course I’m taking this semester. I’m grateful for his generosity in taking the time to respond to my questions and for his permission to post my write-up of the interview here.)

If you think of an editor as someone bent over copy with red pen in hand, searching for misplaced commas and inappropriate homophones, then a glimpse into the working life of Robert Lee Brewer will permanently alter your mental picture. Brewer is Senior Content Editor for the Writer’s Digest Writing Community. He is responsible for the book that has come to be known as the freelancer’s Bible—Writer’s Market—and, as if that wasn’t enough, he also edits the companion website, WritersMarket.com, and the genre-focused Poet’s Market.

There is no typical working day for Robert Lee Brewer. His regular tasks are many and varied, and include everything from reading pitches and assigning articles to creating blog posts and combing through fields of data. “Some tasks make me feel like a programmer, others make me feel like a copywriter,” says Brewer. “There’s a lot more that goes into being an editor (at least in my role) than just editing.”

While an English literature major at the University of Cincinnati, Brewer landed an internship at F&W Publications (now F+W Media), which owns the Writer’s Digest products. He subsequently worked his way up the totem pole to permanent part-time employee, production editor, and assistant editor, until he ultimately reached the position he holds today. “I guess I did it the old-fashioned way,” says Brewer.

In total, Writer’s Digest Books publishes nine Market Books each year. The team responsible for preparing the new editions currently consists of four editors, two assistant editors, a rotating staff of interns, and freelance proofreaders. Each book contains hundreds of pages listing agents, magazines, websites, publishers, contests, and conferences where creative people can potentially find a home for their work. A database holding all of these contacts is updated continuously throughout the year.

The Market Books also feature articles written by professionals on the writing craft and the publishing business. Each summer, Brewer solicits pitches for these articles. He assigns articles to writers in autumn, reviews completed articles during winter, and sends the updated editions off to the printer the following summer.

Whereas the Writer’s Market book has a finish line for its new edition every year, editing WritersMarket.com is like chasing “a carrot tied to a string that is constantly just out of reach.” The website requires even more content than the book, and that content must be updated regularly to keep it relevant. Authors use WritersMarket.com to search for publishing opportunities in real time, and they can also use the site to track where they’ve submitted their work.

Robert Lee Brewer’s duties for Writer’s Digest don’t end at editing or maintaining databases. He writes articles for Writer’s Digest Magazine. He leads webinars and tutorials for Writer’s Digest University, an online education program for writers. And, he runs the Writer’s Digest poetry blog, Poetic Asides.

In fact, Brewer is also a poet. He has self-published two chapbooks of poetry, ENTER and ESCAPE, and he regularly participates in poetry readings. He also maintains a personal blog, My Name Is Not Bob, and frequently tweets for his own benefit and that of his employer. This is one well-rounded publishing professional. According to Brewer, “Sometimes, I’m an editor, but I can also be a poet, husband, father, den leader, concerned citizen, etc.”

Brewer is married to poet Tammy Foster Brewer, with whom he has five children. Luckily, his editing gig allows him the freedom to work from his home in Duluth, Georgia: “I work at home more than 90% of the time. When I’m up in Ohio, I usually stop in for a day or two in the Cincinnati office.” He is happy to be able to spend ample time with his family and to cut the phrase “daily commute” from his vocabulary though he misses seeing co-workers and has had to teach himself when it’s time to quit working.

A creative person at heart (Brewer earned two writing certificates from the University of Cincinnati, in Technical and Business Writing, and Creative Writing – Fiction) he views editing as a creative endeavor, particularly when combining “a writer’s intent with a sensibility that will appeal to the editor’s audience.” Having known a number of other editors, he feels each typically excels in one area above all others. “Some are good at speaking and networking, some are better at research. The best I’ve been around though are very good problem solvers and eternal optimists.”

In the ever-evolving world of publishing, an editor, whether of print or online media, must be open to developing new skills and adopting new roles. Robert Lee Brewer is a fine example of exactly this type of flexible editor. He has embraced new media while incorporating values learned via his work in traditional media. To aspiring editors, he offers this advice: “Keep up with what’s happening in publishing and media. Always work to develop new skills and take on new challenges. Don’t get set in your ways if you expect to survive in this business.” Words to live by for those who want a thriving career like Robert Lee Brewer’s.

Solidarity

I’ve begun a new habit of reading poetry each morning before I begin to write. At the moment, I’m working through the seventh edition of Contemporary American Poetry, edited by A. Poulin, Jr. and Michael Waters. I’m doing this to educate myself, but I’m also doing this to inspire my writing every day.

Once upon a time, I listened to music to inspire my writing. The problem though is that when music is playing I need to sing. The singing becomes a distraction from writing. Or, I write song lyrics rather than whatever else I intended to write. Not that I’m against song lyrics. Just that song lyrics aren’t all I want to write.

So now I’m trying this poetry-reading device. And it seems to be working. After all, I’m sitting here composing this post.

I’m zoning in on the styles of writing that most appeal to me. I’ve noticed I like a direct voice, unapologetic, real. I dislike obscurity, language that is so metaphorical I can’t be certain I understand exactly what an author means. I like rhythm and a husky timbre, like smooth jazz. But then, I like a hard rock kick in the ass just as well.

When I respond to a particular poet, I read the notes on that poet’s life and work in the back of the book. More often than not I discover the poet is simply an ordinary person much like myself. Maybe I’m the only one shocked by this. For me, it’s a revelation that an ordinary person like myself might potentially write something extraordinary. These people fold their laundry and mow their lawns, and they write poems examining the whys and whos and hows we all contemplate but rarely speak out loud.

It’s good to feel not so odd.