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Part II – What Now?
Okay, so I have a story and I’ve written hundreds of pages of a first draft. What now? Although I was pretty sure since I taught writing and had a degree in editing that I could offer a clean draft, I knew I still needed a professional to offer direction. A member of my writing group gave me the name of a directional editor. Enter Suzanne Kingsbury.
It was late at night, a few weeks before Christmas, when I emailed Suzanne my manuscript draft. By six the next morning, Suzanne’s text, single spaced, three screens long, said, Yes, Yes, Yes. I am very selective, she wrote, and take on only a few writers, so that I can offer to your manuscript my undivided attention. First, we should meet, she said, to get a feel for each other. She lived in northern Vermont, and I on Long Island, forty miles from New York City. The Oyster Bar, she suggested. The Oyster Bar is in Grand Central Station, the site where the bomb that could have demolished the landmark restaurant was removed by my husband right before it detonated and killed him. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but I wanted Suzanne on my team.
I could feel the flutters in my chest as Suzanne sat at the table. She had so much energy, so much enthusiasm, so much to say about my life, as though she memorized every page and knew just how the book should look. We ate salmon and rich desserts and talked until the restaurant was quiet and we realized how late it was. Scene by scene, she said as we parted. Then we will braid it all together.
I had been trying to write a story, link one chapter to another, and it wasn’t working because instead of being focused on each scene, I focused on the whole book. Before we got to work in earnest, Suzanne offered a workshop she was hosting where I could explore further what my book would look like. I fell in love with those writers and, encouraged by their reaction to my words, I wrote stories that made everyone cry.
There I also met Dede Cummings, book designer and would-be agent, who consented to represent me. I would be her first client as an agent, but she knew top editors in the industry and hoped to land my unfinished manuscript. Then one after another, the rejections arrived. We like your story, those top agents said, but it’s not ready yet.
So while Dede fielded my story to publishers, Suzanne sent a flurry of emails, pages and pages long, asking for details. Tell me five stories about Brian. Tell me about your relationship with your mother, your sister, your children. These were the sensory details that the book needed to place the reader on the page, she said. What was the color of your nail polish, scent of the fireplace, what was Christmas like alone for the first time? She drew out memories I had not thought of, feelings I had buried, accomplishments I had trivialized. Write it all down, every dark corner of your memory. Then we can pick and choose what we want to keep. She forced me to think about the reader as critic, one who wanted to be entertained and thrilled and cry when she is reading my words.
I wrote a story about the day I met Brian. It was tentative at first, bare details. Go back and add everything you saw and felt and heard, Suzanne said. Draft after draft came back with suggestions, until finally she said it was ready. She had a contest in mind.
The HuffPost50 memoir contest offered a grand prize of publication by Simon and Schuster. It was my first contest, and I checked the site a hundred times and watched as the list of contestants grew past the 2000 mark. I was up against bright minds, established writers, but Suzanne was confident and I tagged along on her enthusiasm. Then I received an email from Rita Wilson. I knew that name. Tom Hanks’s wife, known for Sleepless in Seattle. “Your entry has been chosen as one of the finalists of the HuffPost50 memoir contest. Ten Finalists were chosen from a pool of more than 2400 contestants. Congratulations on sending one of the very best pieces our judges encountered,” she wrote.
Sometimes dreams do come true.
Stay tuned for Part III
Part I of a Series
Stories circled my mind since I was a little girl with a diary. At first they were amusing stories about roller-skating on South Bronx streets in the middle of the night, or about the police raid on the Chinese laundry my friend’s father owned. But the stories weren’t cohesive. Writing was something I taught, not something I actually did. I was immersed in a world of college students who were potential writers, yet I did not put pen to paper. Something held me back, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Then on September 11th, 2001, things changed.
During the first class I held after that fateful day, students were anxious to write about their experiences. For the first hour of that three-hour class we wrote in silence, and as I looked around, my students absorbed in their private experiences, I thought about my own feelings on that extraordinary day and what they would think if they knew my story. So I began to write. I put down on paper what I had never been able to write about before, that on September 11th, 1976, exactly twenty-five years to the day, my husband was killed by a terrorist bomb in New York City.
September 11th had been my own private day of mourning, and I wrote about the pain of the now constant reminder of that date. I wrote about the woman who went along with her husband’s scheme to hijack a plane and threaten the world, and the bomb that was left in Grand Central Station that detonated and killed my husband, a member of the NYPD Bomb Squad. The words seemed to flow as I wrote about how unlikely it was that we began to write to each other, the widow and the hijacker, and against all reason, created a bond.
As we went around the room, each person opened up to his or her experience about that most agonizing day. After everyone had read their stories, there was a stillness to the classroom I had never felt before. It was as thought they knew something else was coming and they looked to me and waited. As I began to read my own words I felt the electricity and the incredulous reaction of my students, and it made me realize that this was not just my life, but a truly remarkable story that needed to told.
To show myself I was serious about writing a book, I enrolled in an online writing course. Why, you might ask, when I was a college professor of English? Because I needed discipline. I needed to be surrounded by other writers who could offer considered criticism, as experience had taught me that we can never be our own critic.
After one semester, I hit my stride. Classmates hailed from Australia and Ecuador, a doctor, a poet, published authors, all seeking the same thing: encouragement. Our instructor gave us the tools and we wrote pages of critique for each other, offered ideas that brought stories to life, directions we hadn’t thought of, ways to develop characters more fully. We stayed together through four semesters and then started our own group, and it is these writers to whom I credit my accomplishment, for without their enthusiasm, my stories might still be circling around my head.
There was a time when my wedding anniversary held the same trepidation as the anniversary of my husband’s death. As the anniversary drew near, that old uninvited gnawing began, a presence that demanded attention. For the first few years I tried to ignore that presence, keep busy, but throughout the day that biting pain reminded me of the celebrations and the happiness I couldn’t share with my husband anymore.
When I remarried, I did not tell my new husband when the date rolled around, and thought it would be easier because I had created new memories and had a fulfilling life. I thought the date would simply be one that I no longer had to recognize, but after several years, as much as I tried to think forward thoughts, the past always came back.
Over dinner the night that would have marked my fifteenth wedding anniversary, I told my new husband. I thought he would simply acknowledge the thought and move on, but to my surprise, he raised his glass and proposed a toast. “Here’s to Brian Murray,” he said, “A man I admire for his bravery and sacrifice.” The little speech brought tears to my eyes. I hadn’t known that James was so unfettered. There was no jealousy or resentment. James was strong enough to acknowledge the man who was once part of my life.
From that day forward on my first wedding anniversary date I make a little toast and remember with fondness, not trepidation, the gifts I have been given.
My memoirs have a new title. NIne months to gestate and get all pretty, then in your hands October, 2017.
Look for my memoir on 10/10/17.
I wrote a book. I have an agent. Now, I realize, I must market myself so that when the book comes out people will want to read it. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, sometimes, but don’t really know how to draw an audience. Then I talked with Sandy Smith of Smith Publicity, and within an hour I had new insight about myself, my book, and what I can offer in terms of relevant and interesting conversation that will draw readers to my site.
How did you honor your lost spouse while forging a relationship with your new husband? How did your children celebrate Father’s day? How does one approach a grieving person without intruding? Sandy fired one question after another. This was my life she asked about. How did I manage these things?
I never thought about it, but I did manage these and many other things that had to do with life after losing a spouse, and I wish I had a place to turn then. But there was no internet and no community, so I forged ahead as best as I knew how, and learned much in the process. Now I know I can share with a larger community of readers who may also be wondering how to navigate life after the death of a loved one.
Thank you to Sandy Smith, who has the amazing capacity to see how a book fits into the world of readers. I hope to make her proud.
September 11, 1977
The first anniversary of my husband’s death loomed ahead. As soon as the calendar rolled around to September, the dread began to build. I needed to plan something to get me through that day. I didn’t want to share it with family. My grief felt different and I needed to look at it, be with it, feel it.
I sat in the gazebo looking over Northport Harbor and watched sailboats glide past. I envied the people on those boats, carefree and idle on that summer day, and longed to share their sense of abandonment. I wanted a respite from the despair that had overshadowed everything since Brian’s death.
The weight of the last year still felt palpable. The NYPD presence, their jarring 21-gun salute, the American flag precisely folded. The unanswered questions: Why wouldn’t the Bomb Squad tell me what happened to one of their own? How did the bomb explode? My little boys and night terrors about their daddy getting blown up like Wylie Coyote. I needed just one day away from it all.
By the time I left to pick up Chris from pre-school, I had devised a plan. I would rent a boat, pack a lunch, and spend the afternoon adrift on Long Island Sound.
The young man at the boat rental suggested a rowboat. I had no sailing experience, and I felt his reluctance as he untied the boat from the dock. He seemed to want to row the boat for me, both for my safety and the boat’s, but let go after I assured him I’d be fine.
Putting the oars into the water that morning, I felt Brian’s presence more strongly than any time in the past year. It was wrapped around me as tightly as the orange life jacket the rental guy insisted I wear. A few months before, I’d gone to a fortuneteller on a whim. She told me I had a guardian angel on my shoulder. “It’s my husband,” I told her. “I feel him too.”
I had never rowed a boat by myself, but somehow I managed to row out to the middle of the Sound. I pulled in the oars and floated aimlessly, letting the soothing motion of the water lull me. I did an emotion check – I wasn’t afraid or sad. For the first time in a year, I felt calm.
As I ate my fried chicken lunch, I noticed a speedboat coming toward me. It was far enough away so that I knew it would not hit me, but I held on as the boat began to rock. When the salt and pepper slid into the water, I laughed at the irony of Jimmy Buffet, searchin’ for his lost shaker of salt, then the shock of cold water replaced humor with numbing fear. The wave that capsized the boat had looked like a ripple until it hit my tiny craft.
I sank down into the darkness before the life jacket pulled me back up and fresh air filled my lungs. I flapped around trying to grab on to something, anything, but the boat was too far away, and my feeble attempt at swimming sent me in circles. So I stopped and floated on my back, and watched lazy clouds drift by like I didn’t have a care in the world.
It was only a few minutes before the speeding boat circled around and came back to help me, but in that time I found the serenity I was searching for. I was ready to take back my life.
That was forty years ago. Now my sons have children of their own. I entered the halls of Stony Brook University for the first time that year and earned degrees in literature that allowed a college-level teaching career of twenty-five years. I changed laws for police widows and founded an organization for survivors who had the same questions I had once asked. I wrote my memoir, the story of my humble beginnings in the South Bronx, the bomb that killed my husband, and the relationships that had hijacked my life.
Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if Brian had lived. Would I have pursued my education or become an outspoken activist? Perhaps, but growth takes fortitude, determination, and, the ability to gather strength from tragedy.
In the last few months I have received a half dozen notes from Croatians who have offered their sympathy and best wishes. It has been almost forty years, and yet people from that gentle country have found their way to this page to let me know that my loss has not been forgotten. My heartfelt thanks to those who have taken the time to let me know I am in their thoughts.