Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Waiting Game

My first YA novel is going from editor to editor as my agent tries to find someone who loves it as much as we do, and wants to commit to editing it so that it can get to market. That means an editor has to convince an entire publishing house that the book is worth their initial investment to get it from raw form, to something you can purchase in various formats. 

The process may vary from agent to agent, but this is my agent's approach:

First, my agent created a pitch that summarized the book in a way that lets editors know what they're getting, without giving it all away. This included using some comparisons to other books that might be similar in ways to mine. Unfortunately, there aren't many like mine on the market, so my agent had to get creative and come up with a mash-up of books that contain elements that appear in my story. She crafted the message in such a way that an editor who receives countless story ideas per day, would be intrigued enough to read what she sent.

Second, she made a tiered list of editors she's worked with who might be game for my type of manuscript. Mine is not a cheery, feel-good story. You won't find magic, rainbows or fairy dust in my work. It involves child abuse and neglect, drugs, bullies and lots of violence. I have a protagonist of color. The setting is urban. There are a few cuss words. There's bi-racial love and lesbian characters.  All of these elements have to be taken into account when deciding which editors to approach. 

Once she had her proposal ready, my agent sent the manuscript to her first tier of editors. She heard back from a few and shared their comments with me. While none have taken on the manuscript, they are mostly encouraging, stating that they like my voice and writing style, but that the content isn't for them, and that they'd like to see something else from me. My agent was excited about that because most rejections do not encourage an agent to submit other work, they simply pass on the project. Editors being open to my writing is a good thing, which slightly softens the sting of rejection.

Of course I want editors to have a bidding war over my work, but this is all a normal part of the publishing process. Rejection is the most reoccurring part of it all. It is a subjective industry. There is no prototype for what editors want to commit to. If there were a formula for what type of writing will be best sellers, all books would be written the same way and life as we know it would be boring. Editors have to love the work enough to fight for it within their publishing house, and want to read it dozens of times to edit it and get it ready for market.

It is easier to get a publisher with a known writer, but as a debut author, I have no track record, no following, no reputation in the book world. This increases the risk, and makes it harder for me to get the attention of an editor willing to take on my book. But, at the same time, I believe strongly in my work and have faith that once the right editor comes along who matches my passion for the book, it will be the kind of book that someone out there needs to read. I have faith in that. It keeps me positive.

So, I wait. I am not a patient person by any stretch of the imagination, but lucky for me, my jobs, child and life in general keep me too busy to dwell on all the waiting that is part of this process. In the meantime I write other stories, revise ones I have, and try not to go insane. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

4 Years

February 15, 2016 marked 4 years since Warren's passing. In truth, sometimes I can barely recognize the life we used to live together. Was that really my life? Was I really that person?

While in the scheme of things, four years is nothing, in grief years, it feels like forty. 

The first year anniversary I was still in shock and numb. I went through the motions of the day not really knowing how to accept that it had been a year since his death. I was unsure of how to approach it. I was lucky that my friends enveloped me in laughter, attention and understanding. They shared memories with me, allowed me to cry if I needed to, and provided a space of acceptance. 

The second year I felt like a survivor. I was still sick with pain over the loss, but I was navigating life as a widow and single mom more smoothly. I had three jobs keeping me busy. Graduate school was a wonderful distraction. My family and friends had been rock solid support along the way. The second anniversary was the day I got inked for a second time.  There were tears, but I recall smiles and feeling loved. 

I thought I would get through the third year like a champ with less tears, but it felt the worst of all. There had been three years of losses to contend with. Death took way more than my husband. It took parts of me that I realized would never be the same. There were daily struggles as a result of the death that I was tired of dealing with. I felt like three years was such a long time to still be grieving as though it just happened. Why did I still have so many moments of feeling like the band-aid was ripped away to reveal a fresh wound? I wanted so much to be better, stronger, to feel less pain. It wore on me to face every day without the person I had chosen to be at my side. I was angry. 

Anger was the reigning emotion of the third anniversary. It was so strong that it startled me. It scared me how it could flash through me like lightning, blinding me to all the positives I had left. The injustice of all I had lost, and all that would never be strangled me. One minute I was fine, the next I was burning with a rage that felt like a network of blades tearing through me from soul to flesh. Recalling that day still makes my stomach knot up.

I decided I needed to have a plan for facing the forth year. It involved more sleep, better health, a therapist that specializes in grief and PTSD, writing, taking time to laugh and be with friends, and taking time off work the days leading to the 15th, and the day of. It fell on a Monday so I filled my day with activities that bring me peace, like sleeping in, a massage, writing at my favorite coffee shop and dinner with my friends. I had even come up with an internal chant that would move my thoughts from what will never be, to what could be. I thought I was armed and ready. Ha! I was delusional.

Grief doesn't care about preparedness. It laughs in the face of all that. It rams your consciousness with the strength of a thousand flames, and all you can do is breathe through it, tell yourself that this day will pass, and try to be as kind to yourself as possible. I let myself cry, be frustrated and feel cheated because those are all normal, valid feelings. It wasn't easy to be so emotionally vulnerable, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. It feels miserable, yet I understand that those emotions are necessary and healing.

Last year I kept trying to fight it, and that was futile. That's why this year I decided on a different approach: Accepting all feelings that came on the 15th or the days leading up to it, which are often hardest. No resistance; no reprimanding myself for feeling what are normal feelings when processing grief; no chastising myself for not being emotionally stronger in year 4. Was the anger gone? Not at all. Was it painful? Most definitely. Did I expect any less? No.

In that respect, I was prepared in a way I hadn't been before. I was prepared to let the day bring what ever emotions it would, and not fight it. In these years of grieving I am learning that grief will always be unpredictable, but that if I had survived the past three years of remembering, feeling, and living through another anniversary, I could do it one more time. This is my new reality, the life I face daily. It is not the one I chose, but it is the one that I must learn to make the best of.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Mi Querido Warren

4 Years since we've made a memory together.
4 Years since I've seen your smile, heard your laugh, felt your embrace.
4 Years of wishing for one more day, one more conversation, one more adventure, one more "I love you."
4 Years of loving and missing you - many more to come.

Forever in my heart and thoughts.

Warren Allen Morrow: July 26, 1977 - February 15, 2012

A kind soul, leader, doting father, thoughtful husband, socially conscious businessman gone too soon. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

When I Remember

Was I just deaf?
When I recall the days before February 15, 2012 what strikes me most is the normalcy of those days. It is amazing that I was so clueless as to what was coming. 

In the days leading to the 4th anniversary of Warren's death I remember how mundane everything was back then, nothing felt out of place. This scares me because it is as if I had a calm before a raging storm. There was no indication of what was to come. It is hard to be at ease because I live as if waiting for the next storm.

That is a tough existence. It means that my mind never really lets it go. In the midst of happiness there is dread and doubt. I always feel cautious against an unknown calamity that is always on the brink. This worry varies from a trickle to an all out anxiety-fest, especially in the month of February. Thank goodness it is the shortest month of the year.

Hindsight is 20/20 and I should look back and see the signs and that should help me look forward, right? Not exactly. 

Looking back, yes there were signs that Warren wasn't feeling 100% well, but they were so subtle that they fooled everyone - from doctors to paramedics and surgeons, all of whom had contact with him within a month of his passing. The physical signs that were missed aren't the ones that sting the most. What plagues is wondering where the hell my women's intuition was those days. Why didn't it enlighten me to say I love you one more time? Where was the push from the universe to hug him a little tighter, longer? Why didn't I get a gut feeling that night when I lay next to him that I would never get that chance again? That is where my dilemma lies. I feel as though I have no internal alert system.  

Maybe none of us do. I don't know. However, there was a time when I felt like I could sense when something was going to happen - good and bad. Perhaps it is egoistic to believe that I possessed an inherent internal warning mechanism, but I used to believe that I did. Surely something as huge as losing the love of my life would have warranted some sort of sense that I needed to change something in those days: prepare myself, prepare my child, prepare Warren. But there was nothing. I went about my days completely oblivious to the nightmare that was around the corner waiting to devour life as I knew it.

Death takes away a lot. One of the many things it took from me is my sense of intuition, that confidence in following my gut, listening to my heart, looking for signs from the universe. Now, whenever I think, "That must be a sign" or feel like maybe something is not aligned like it should be, I shut that feeling down, question it, fear trusting it. I don't want to have that distrust of myself, but it is hard to combat. I am thankful that I still get those feelings, but wish I could embrace them more, instead of getting angry and wondering where they were those days in 2012. 

The reality is that even if I had some premonition that something wasn't right, there is no way that I could have guessed in a million years what was in store. No intuition in the world could have prepared me for losing Warren. There could never have been enough I love you's, hugs, kisses or embraces to eliminate the feeling of being robbed. That simply is not possible. Even if I had a vision of what was to come, I would not have believed it. 

The awful truth is that there is no way to equip yourself for death. Even in cases of terminal illness I don't believe one can ever be prepared to say good bye to a loved one. Rationally, I understand that. However, as I grapple with facing the four-year anniversary of losing Warren, that knowledge brings me no comfort. I still remember the calm days that were like any other, and wonder how those days are any different than the ones I am left with today. Perhaps four years isn't enough time to heal from the shock of it all, but every year I think that this day will be easier, and every year grief unveils another layer, often more complicated than the last. All I can do is appreciate that I still have the memories of those days, and know that while they were uneventful, they were some of the most profound I have lived.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Define American

The Define American Film Festival came to Des Moines January 21-23 and showed a variety of films that focus on the "American" experience of those who come from other countries, both documented and not, and those who identify outside of the global perception of "American". There was a panel discussion after each film where audience members got to ask questions. Many of them spoke from places of understanding, and it was sad yet inspiring to hear how many were advocates, even in the face of dire consequences, like deportation.

I wish I had been able to make it to all the films, but I'm glad I made it to the three that I did.

I am not a huge movie or television person. I can't sit still for long without getting bored, but these films captured my mind in a way that kept me focused and glad I had taken the time to view them.

The first film was A Better Life, starring Demián Bichir as an undocumented father of a teen son in East LA who works as a landscaper and lives in a one bedroom house where he sleeps on the couch so his son can have the only room. His son is first-generation born in the US and doesn't understand how hard his dad works to provide the meager existence they share. It was released in 2011 and got an Oscar nomination. The director, Chris Weitz, who is part Latino from immigrant ancestors, joined Demián Bichir and a local DREAMer and activist, Monica Reyes to answer questions, and share why this film was so important to them. Each of them saw a part of themselves in the story. The panel was moderated by Rekha Basu, a local columnist with the Des Moines Register.

Bichir waves, sitting between Basu, and Weitz, Reyes on the far right.

What I liked best about the film festival was that it focused on topics that many often feel afraid to talk about, or have such strong feelings that it can get uncomfortable very quickly. This festival offered a safe place to share, learn and listen to those who were brave enough to share their stories.

The second film I saw was The Muslims are Coming, a documentary put together by Muslim comedians. Aside from being very funny, it was eye-opening. There was a part where they asked people what the most hated groups in America were and most people listed Muslims among the top, more so than the runners up: immigrants, Jews and gays. It's sad that media has played such a role in creating this fear of a religion in a country that was founded on religious freedoms. How easily we forget that some of the most heinous acts of terrorism and hate in the US were committed by American citizens who do not practice Islam. Politicians use them as scapegoats and to conjure up fear and division, to win votes, and not caring that they are stigmatizing so many who have nothing to do with the violence of a minority of extremists. Have we forgotten the atrocities Christians have committed over centuries? Isn't what police officers are doing to unarmed blacks and Latinos a form of terrorism? Why are they not thought of in the same light? The answer is simple: not all police officers are bad. So why don't Muslims get the same benefit of the doubt?

The film festival was brought to Des Moines by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist and film maker who made history when he published his 'coming out' story as an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times Magazine. He wrote and directed the documentary Undocumented, that was shown at the film festival. It chronicled his story and his search for understanding of why the US immigration system makes it nearly impossible for people like him and his mother to be in the country legally. As with all the films I saw, I highly recommend taking the time to watch it.

He also founded Define American, a nonprofit organization intended to open up dialogue about the criteria people use to determine who is an American. In that effort he challenges people to think about their definition of what it means to be an American. I heard many ideas about it at the film festival and it made me think about what it means to me to be an American.

As a Puerto Rican, I was born a US citizen with the privilege of never having to worry about myself or my family being ripped apart by broken immigration laws. That privilege went unnoticed for years, until I started learning about other's struggles to live in the shadow of deportation and the fear that comes with being an undocumented American. I deliberately chose that description because I believe that immigrants are sometimes more American than I am. They gave up EVERYTHING to be here. They left all they knew for a place made of dreams and hope. They got here and worked jobs I wouldn't be able to handle. They make it possible for me to eat produce at a cost I can afford so I can lead a  healthy lifestyle. They pay into taxes and social security for programs my family and I benefit from. They cook and open restaurants I love to eat at. They have taught me things that I would otherwise never thought about learning. They demonstrate values of gratitude that serve as examples and humble me. All I did to become American is be born. I did not choose to become American. I did not sacrifice for it like the 11 million undocumented have.

Labels like "illegal" demonize them as though they are criminals for wanting to live free of the violence and economic instability of their homelands. They are often treated and talked about as something to fear and loathe. It's one of the most embarrassing things about being an American. To think that I come from a land that thinks some human lives matter more than others simply because of where that life came to be, or what papers they carry it sickening. How sad that millions of lives are impacted by this and so many have the power to change things for the better and they do not. I wish I could say I come from a country of compassion for all. That is is the American I want to be known for.

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