Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Review: Brain On Fire: My Month Of Madness

While diligently searching for an editor and publisher for my own family memoir, I read the memoir entitled  Brain On Fire:  My Month Of Madness by Susannah Cahalan.  Actually, the manager of my local Barnes and Noble was interested in this book as she had never heard of it.  She asked how I had come to hear about it and as usual I inform her that I'm searching for a publishing home for my family memoir and this particular book was published by one of the literary houses known for producing excellent memoirs.  I selected this memoir because it's about a journalist who finds herself experiencing enormous health problems and unable to find a specialist who can pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong with her body.  (I know the feeling as I have the autoimmune disorder known as Cogan's Syndrome that gave rise to both Meniere's Disease and Uveitic Glaucoma).   Initially, this journalist starts experiencing symptoms such as lack of concentration, forgetfulness, and lack of focus/purpose at her work.  Worse still, she starts experiencing a wide range of emotions going from contentment to agitation in a matter of minutes.  I became scared for this gal when she starts having visual and auditory hallucinations.  Seriously, she thinks people are calling her degrading names when in fact they've said nothing.  At one point she believes she has the power to age people with her mind.  Na urally, there were doctors who believed she might have psychosis or bipolar disorder, but that wasn't the real problem.

Eventually, she winds up in an emergency room after suffering seizures and uncontrollable behavior such as trying to jump from a moving vehicle.   At this point in the story she lands in an observational epilepsy unit at the hospital.  She will have no recollection of the next month she spends in the hospital as specialists attempt to discover her diagnosis.  She pieces together this time period from a diary her dad kept, interviewing nurses/doctors at a later date, and watching video recordings of herself made during this month in the hospital.  A specialist finally comes along that suspects she has a problem with her autoimmune system, but to determine if that's the case, she undergoes a brain biopsy.  Sure enough, her immune system is attacking and inflaming her brain.  The treatment for this involves steroids, flushing the vile antibodies via plasmapheresis, and then undergoing IVIG treatment.  Thankfully she now has the proper diagnosis and treatment plan as she has now gotten to a point where she has trouble walking and speaking.  She goes through months of rehabilitation.  Eventually, she is able to slowly return to her work as a journalist, but she lives with the constant fear that her immune system will one day attack her own body/brain once again.  I can tell you this much:  she is lucky she found a specialist that had the foresight to dig a little deeper, engage with her more fully, and had the proper connections to get her biopsy tested in a thorough manner.  Most people do NOT have this advantage.  Most people would possibly be stuck with the wrong diagnosis and incorrect treatment protocol.  Far worse, many folks in this circumstance might pass away or never regain their original identities.  I was quite inspired by this read; it just goes to show you better make sure you've turned over every rock when it comes to getting a correct diagnosis and locating a specialist in combating a rare disorder.  I know because I've lived through the same nightmare as this journalist and so has my dad; however, that's a whole other story that remains untold until someone decides to enable me to tell it.

My Style Of Writing

So I have discovered the reason why literary agents and editors appear to have difficulty with my writing style.  First, I did not major in journalism (though I have worked on a newspaper staff) so I don't try and give the facts of a story and try to remain objective.  I don't require a ghost writer as I am a former English, Creative Writing, Public Speaking, etc. instructor so I have no problem getting  words on paper in a logical and meaningful manner.  I'm not a celebrity; therefore, I don't know  privileges that kind of life entails so I obviously write in a more layman's/laywoman's language.  I certainly didn't major in poetry (although I have taught it) so I don't really write in metaphors and with rhymes.  Nor is my writing style short and sweet.  It's a writing style that's more like an  eyewitness account by an impassioned participant who is relaying the story to you as she lives it.  I think my writing is startling to some because I pride myself on telling it like it is in a no-holds-barred fashion which can come across as irreverent, at times laugh out loud funny, and sometimes soberly in your face realism.   It can be hard to contain someone like me in person and of course on paper; I can get seriously carried away.  I write about personal experience both my own and that of my family members.  This is personal stuff.  I relate to my readers as if I am having a conversation with them over lunch at the local tavern.  I don't try and produce writing that is reflective of research and analyses; for God's sake, the last thing anyone would ever accuse me of is being stale and boring.  So I am still waiting to find an editor that can take on a southern firecracker.

I am now reading the memoir Brain On Fire:  My Month Of Madness by Susannah Cahalan and will write a review about it shortly.  First I have to figure out my new laptop and why it suddenly deletes important chunks of my writing.  Once I  discover why this is happening and how to rectify the problem I will be back with my latest review.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Where Art Thee Publisher??!

After my last post on literary agents I think it is quite obvious that feisty, southern female writers are being ostracized from the literary world.  Here's the thing:  Publishers and literary agents WANT, WANT, WANT authors/writers with distinctive voices.  Well, I have no problem there.  My father says I haven't had a problem with voice since I came out of the womb.  Next, pulishers/literary agents demand unique stories and that they be told in an original fashion.  If you read the synopsis for my manuscript The Courage Chronicles:  A Memoir then you would know that the year I chronicle about me and my liberal, southern family is quite, shall we say, unusual.  I love it when people ask me after hearing some of what has recently unfolded in my life, "Hey, have you ever thought about writing a book?"  I always return a longing look with a cocked right eyebrow and say "Well, yes I have, but since I don't come with the brand name Kardashian, it's been a bit like hunting for a speck of a diamond in a haystack to uncover a literary agent/publisher willing to go out on a limb for an ordinary, southern Generation Xer who trekked to hell and back with her family".  People, please! I have survived glaucoma at age 30, Meniere's disease at age 18, and a rare autoimmune disorder at age 32 so the list of unpredictable challenges in my life has been swift, long, and unending; therefore, I continue to pound the computer keys, mail the manuscript, read the latest Publisher's Weekly columns in order to find me an agent or publisher.  I didn't think this quest would encompass me banging my head against a brick wall at times; teaching certainly made me do that, but getting something published has about cost me my mind and dignity. 

I decided to take an urgent break earlier this week before almost committing to jumping off the roof of my house due to the stress of this publishing quest.  I received the latest Lilly Pulitzer Spring 2013 catalog and took myself to a local Lilly boutique just to gaze upon the latest collection of dresses in candy land colors. Damn, I can't wait for summer!  Hilton Head here I come!  After taking myself to lunch at my favorite seafood restaurant and indulging in a crab cake sandwich, I picked up Martha Beck's memoir Leaving The Saints:  How I Lost The Mormons And Found My Faith.  Ms. Beck is hysterical; I recognize her from my O, The Oprah Magazine columns.  I like her because she tells it like it is in a no holds barred fashion.  And Lord knows, like me, this woman has quite a story to tell.  She grew up in Mormon country with a father who held the prestigious position within the church of defending the religion.  I was horrified by the ritual she was subjected to prior to her marriage.  My first reaction to its summary was:  What The Fool?!  Bless Martha though, like me, she soldiered on after a strict childhood and made her way to Harvard majoring in Sociology.  (Okay, I didn't attend "The Harvard", but I attended a UNC college which is like the Harvard of Southern colleges for those who wanted to eventually teach English to the masses).  Back to the book, Ms. Beck senses she is losing her connection to spirituality until the birth of her son which wasn't exactly a walk in the park.  After his birth, she and her husband turn west and head back to Mormon country to regain the support and love of family.   Ms. Beck is determined to find spiritual serenity while there, but she starts questioning the faith, begins speaking out about feminism, and frighteningly, starts having flashbacks to her childhood.  I almost dropped my teeth when I intuited early what had occurred to her as a child.

Bless Martha, she goes to find someone to help her cope with her discovery and flashbacks only to find a social worker who is only infrequently invested in helping her overcome the post traumatic stress disorder the new revelation has caused.  So the social worker asks Martha to bring in her family thinking everyone will contribute their stories and memories and generally be supportive of Martha.  No luck.  The family turns on the social worker like my cat does any canine.  It was scary.  None of them back up Martha's revelations and generally become dismissive.  At this point I think, God this woman has a family full of neurotic revolutionaries just like mine!  Bless this woman, she hunts for a new therapist and finds one that is in fact a certified therapist.  This therapist brings in the family member who caused Martha so much trauma and you know what?  He's just like members of my family and likes to live in DeNial too.  Eventually, Ms. Beck discovers how to achieve her spiritual serenity and I can tell you it involves a lot of chopping wood in the middle of the night, support groups, and a huge stage for a revelation like no other.  At this point in the book I think maybe she's a close relative.  Oh, Martha's fine now.  She left the Saints.  They wished to excommunicate her anyway.  She even cut ties with her family.  A woman's got to do what she's got to do in order to find peace.  Hell, I've always known that like Martha, I'm going to have to walk though hell in order to find my slice of heaven.  Ya'll better take a gander at this memoir. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Perils Of Hunting For A Literary Agent

Well dear readers, let me tell you that attempting to locate and secure a literary agent is NOT for the faint of heart or the impatient.  I have lived through glaucoma, Meniere's disease, basal cell carcinoma, and teaching in an inner city school, but none of that compares with the anguish I have endured on my quest for a literary agent.  Allow me to expound on the reasons it is difficult to locate a literary agent for my family memoir:

1)  There Is No Response From The Agent.  Yes, it's totally true; literary agents may choose to ignore your query entirely and will sometimes not get back to you even when they have requested a partial of the manuscript and a book proposal.  As a writer you are left wondering:  Why?  Was it something I said?

2)  You Are Not A Celebrity.  I have been told by many an agent that they are not able to represent me because I am not a celebrity, my family isn't famous, and I do not have 2 million Twitter followers.  Wow! And I thought the reading public wanted books in the memoir genre that are about people they can relate to on an everyday basis.  Silly me, what was I thinking?!

3)  Can't Sell The Book.  I have had literary agents tell me the material in my memoir would not be wanted by any of the major publishers.  And sometimes I am told there is no market for my work.  I sometimes wonder if these agents have ever heard of J.K. Rowling or perhaps, Kathryn Stockett who were both rejected numerous times and later went on to have huge bestsellers.

4)  Our Agency Is Not A Good Fit For You.  I have actually had emails stating this explicit fact.  No reason is given like maybe they boycott brunettes or do not like southern writers.  I am always curious about these responses because it comes across as quite condescending.  I always want to stand on a soapbox and yell:  BUT I HAVEN'T EVEN MET YOU PEOPLE!!

5)  I Don't Do Misery Memoirs.  If I hear one more agent espouse that they do not take misery memoirs, I may in fact boycott all books repped by said agent.  Just because an author is writing about trauma does NOT make the book a misery memoir!!  If you are unable to find value and meaning in books with high trauma drama, you probably haven't lived long enough to appreciate what the rest of us have lived through and learned.  Best wishes darling because your time will come.

6)  Wish I Had The Time, But I Am Too Busy.  I always want to ask these people if it wouldn't be more prudent to just stop accepting queries until they get themselves organized and caught up on all their work.
If this is true, let a writer know so you don't waste my time and I don't waste yours.

7)  This Project Is Not Right For My List.  I always want to ask these agents what lists about which are you speaking?  A grocery list, a to-do list, etc. etc.  I mean if you have a list of book genres that you are making a priority and you are not looking for a book in the writer's genre, please just say so.  Let us endeavor to not be vague okay?

8)  I'll Pass.  That's it.  End of story and end of response.  No reason given.  I just assume these are very cut and dry agents and we probably wouldn't work well together anyway because I like words, like writing, and like elaboration ya know?!  That's why I majored in Communications.

9)  Not Taking New Clients.  Again, I wish agents would just express this on their blogs or web
guidelines.  Why even have writers submitting to you?  Give me a heads up so I can go ahead and cross you off my list.  My time is precious too dear.  And by the way, existing clients don't last forever and I also want to ask these agents if they are fearful of change.  I've always found that new people often broaden my horizons.