You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2011.

… of sorts.  Tomorrow it will be one year since we moved into our new house. And while that makes me feel a bit guilty about the number of boxes still stacked in the guest room, I could not be more pleased at the drastic difference between our lives then and our lives now.

We were stuck in those awful months of never knowing where we would sleep each night. I remember the Friday before we moved, eating dinner with Mark’s parents who had come by to help us finish packing, when I went upstairs to wake Austin from an unusually late nap. And he was burning hot.

Oh, the dreaded fever. Anything but a fever right now! But a fever it was. So I called the oncology department and they told me what I already knew: pack a bag and get on down here.

We spent the next two nights in the hospital, while random friends came over to pack up our house. I had had grand plans of weeding out all the useless stuff instead of moving it along with us. But no, I opened boxes over the following weeks stuffed to the brim with everything from matchbox cars to pots and pans to shoes too small for either of my boys.

I had to beg and plead and cajole and threaten the doctors and nurses to speed everything up so we could spend our very last night together in the only home either of my children had ever known. We made it, Austin and I released on noon the day before the moving trucks arrived.

What a lot of drama for one family to endure, my god. But today, this is home. And we rest assured that we will get to sleep here each night.

I’ve been asked to chime in with my thoughts on the whole Tiger Mother thing. Of course, the entire thing has been commented on by thousands and thousands, but you know I have an opinion, so here goes.

First of all, we simply must accept the fact that everyone has the right to parent in their own way and what works for one set of parents may not work for another. Part of the problem is the need people feel to declare their style as “superior,” which just creates defensiveness and a desire to retaliate on the part of others. Amy Chua’s very title, “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” set her up for the vast and deep anger that is being thrown her way. Had she called her essay “How Chinese Mothers Differ” or any other benign, nonjudgmental title, the fury that ensued would, well, would not have ensued with such a fury. Some people have even suggested that the title was chosen upon the advice of her publisher because a massive national controversy the day before a book is released does nothing if not drive up sales.

So, I’d like to propose a kinder, gentler way — that we allow others to parent in their own style, according to their own values and background, while we parent in our own way without casting judgment on one another (or one another’s offspring). That being said, I am now going to cast a little judgment on both styles of parenting, the Chinese and the Western (as defined by Chua).

Obviously, I believe in unfettered joy as a natural and vital part of childhood. A child’s ability to experiment freely with their vivid imagination, to use their inherent creativity to see and approach the world in unique and nontraditional ways, to define themselves based on the basest qualities (what they love, what they want) is, in a word, wonderful. As in full of wonder.  I don’t think we should do anything to squash that sense of freedom and expressiveness, that joyous ability to focus so thoroughly on whatever seems interesting in any given moment without care for whether it “matters.” Think of a three-year-old studying a caterpillar creeping across a leaf. Should that child be left alone lying on his belly in the dirt to study that leaf for as long as it takes to satisfy his curiosity even if we grown-ups consider it boring or a waste of time or should he be dragged inside to practice the piano (which, by the way, said child may think of as boring and a complete waste of time)?

I am all for exploration and experimentation and imagination run wild. That’s what being a kid is about. And when else in life do you get to “waste time” with such a sense of purpose? Don’t we all wish we could latch on to some silly notion or frivolous idea and immerse ourselves in it for hours or days or weeks on end?

I obviously lean more towards the Dolphin Mother end of the spectrum than the Tiger Mother (and don’t get me started on Mama Grizzlies!). But there are some aspects of Western parenting, particularly in the past decade or so, that I find worrisome. As Chua points out, there is a tendency among the current generation of Western parents to insert themselves into their children’s lives in order to prevent them from  experiencing failure. I think failure is great. Granted, it’s not fun. But it is enormously important. Am I saying that I plan to rejoice when my child comes home crushed by a bad grade or devastated after being cut from the team? No, of course not. I will hug them and suffer alongside them (perhaps even more than them) but I will also know that they are learning a valuable life lesson. We simply have to fail. Hopefully not all the time, mind you! But failure is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. And as parents we need to let our kids fail without blaming others (the coach who pushed too hard, the teacher who expected too much). I don’t believe that kids need to be coddled in that way. They need to own the failure in order for it to be useful.

But all this Tiger Mother business and the huge outcry against her (and the loud support in favor of her) is simply one more example of how lousy we’ve all gotten at disagreeing. You’d think that members of this society would be experts at disagreeing because we do it so darn much! But we’ve really gotten very bad at it. If I read Chua’s article and think to myself, “Wow, that seems harsh,” or even “Damn, I would never treat my kids in such a cruel way,” am I somehow then entitled to go and send her a death threat? A death threat! The woman has received hundreds of them each day. That’s silly, people. Just disagree and get over yourselves.

Parent your children in the very best way you know how. Do some research on key issues like feeding and sleeping, have some basic understanding of the stages of development and what to expect out of each. And then go from your heart. Listen to your children and listen to yourself and do what feels best. Are you gonna make some mistakes? Of course. Amy Chua did and her book addresses that. Those of us with  different styles and different (not lower) expectations of our children will make mistakes too. Our kids will most likely forgive us (as Amy Chua’s have), whether they end up as concert pianists or shop-owners.

I just hope mine end up happy.

The rest of the details:  The entire conference was good, with many interesting sessions (and some really boring ones).  There was a mix of presentations on writing as a craft (how to build and develop your characters) and writing as a business (how to build and develop an online following). I find the former more enjoyable, even though right now it’s the latter that is probably more important.

There was an enormous focus on using social media and blogging (can’t tell you how many times I heard the words “Search Engine Optimization” — perhaps I should go back to my hot titles?) and on the changing face of the book industry given new technologies (e-books, print-on-demand and so on).  It was during these sessions that I found myself (and many of those around me) pulling out the draft of my pitch for endless last minute revising and rehearsing.

I had an opportunity on Friday afternoon to practice my pitch with one of the session presenters, the book world’s expert on pitches and queries. He really helped me hone in on the central theme of my work.  I had been planning on opening with one of those poetic lines that sounds really lovely but doesn’t actually give the hard facts an agent needs.

My original first line: The Wrong Side of the Window is, in essence, a love story: a great big public declaration of a mother’s love for her sick son, her healthy son, her husband, the family, friends and wide community that sustains one family through its darkest hours.

The first line I ended up using: The Wrong Side of the Window is an 83,000 word memoir about mothering through adversity.

A bit more to the point, yes? I also originally introduced Austin as “the hero” of the book until he said that, because it’s a memoir, the hero can only be me. So I omitted Austin entirely and spoke solely of myself.

Kidding!

But I did change a few words to say that the book “focused on” Austin, without using the word hero at all. Many of the agents really responded to the Braedan parts (with lots of vigorous head nodding): There’s wide-eyed and gentle Braedan, struggling to find his role in the drama that stars his little brother, whom he adores and resents with equal force.

I had been advised by above-mentioned expert to leave the word “suffering” out of my last line, which I tried to do late Friday night and throughout the Saturday morning sessions before I finally decided it belonged there, because, hello, I can’t just go and lie.

Sad but not depressing and hopeful but not sappy, this story is an intimate look at suffering and loving and really, really living.

After my introductory monologue, there were 90 seconds for discussion, during which time the agents inevitably asked how Austin was doing (and I often joked that they had to read my pages to find out). The other topics ranged from questions about my previous writing experience to “I can’t wait to read more about the Braedan and Austin relationship.”

All in all, I left there feeling listened to, respected and validated (never a bad thing).  I will send out my pages tomorrow and expect to hear back from them within four to six weeks. The hearing back part is another huge bonus of going to a conference like this and having a face-to-face meeting. Often, due to the high number of blind submissions an agent receives each week, they say that if you don’t hear back from them within a specified amount of time, assume it’s a no. I think that these agents will provide a response, even if it’s a rejection, because it’s material they actually requested. And, if it is a rejection, they will hopefully take a few minutes to say why. And if it’s not a rejection, then they’ll ask to read the full manuscript, which could take another eight weeks. And after that, they would either offer to represent you (or, hopefully, me!) or not.

Then a whole other process starts during which they need to sell the manuscript to a publishing house who actually publishes the book, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves!

Everything else about the weekend was great too.  The fellow writers at the conference were extremely interesting to talk with and very supportive of one another’s work. I am sure to have lots of new friends on Facebook this week!  My mom and I are excellent travel partners because we like all the same things — same kind of food (must include cheese), same amount of walking (lots), same style of walking (fast), same way to spend any free moment (shopping). So, after finishing our long Pitch Day, we walked 3.6 miles in our newly purchased and miraculously comfortable boots to meet up with old friends at a fabulous little Italian place and eat delicious food and drink fat glasses of wine before walking another 3.6 miles back to our hotel. And we never once turned on the hotel room TV.

Perfect.

I love that I can be equally as excited to go away somewhere as I am to come home again — definitely a good sign. And speaking of good signs … the weekend was fabulous.

I am exhausted so I’ll skip all the extraneous details (for now at least) and get to the thing you (and I) care about most: the Pitch Slam. What a fascinating and exhilarating and nerve-wracking process!  Picture more than four hundred aspiring authors lined up outside a hotel ballroom at 2:50 and then, when the doors are ceremoniously opened at 3:15, the crowd surges forward and everyone forms chaotic lines behind the agents of their choice, who are seated two to a table around the periphery of room. And then you wait, lips moving silently as you nervously rehearse your “lines,” eying the competition, strategically deciding which line to stand in next.

I pitched to seven agents in the two hours, which (from what I gleaned from my 400 new best friends) was on the higher end. Five of them requested material, usually the first 10 to 30 pages (one said, “Oh just send me the whole thing” — gulp!). I’m happy with that response, although it was far from unique.  Most attendees I spoke with were asked to send work to most of the agents they pitched to (my mom had an impressive six requests out of six!).  I think the request itself is not an indication of how well they really liked your pitch (I honestly think the agents were sometimes just being nice to people), but the victory lies in the fact that there will now be five people actually reading my work. And that for me has been the biggest hurdle, given the somewhat “unappetizing” nature of what I write.  I mean, few people walk into the bookstore and exclaim, “Oh look! A memoir about a baby who gets cancer — can’t wait to read it!”

I felt like I received some very personal and thoughtful reactions, including one excellent rejection. The first agent I pitched to, who was starred as number one on my list, got tears in her eyes and said she has learned through experience that she simply cannot represent work of this nature because she gets too emotionally caught up in the characters and is no longer able to be objective about the manuscript. That “No” felt as good as some of my “Yeses.”

I did have one other woman who passed, saying that cancer memoirs are just too hard to sell. I wanted to say, “Ugh, I know, everyone who’s ever been sick thinks they should write a book … but this one is GOOD,” but that sort of self-promotion is not looked upon very highly (to say the least).

But all the others seemed genuinely interested (often interrupting to ask if Austin was okay) and excited to hear more. So my next few days will include rewriting a query letter (much easier now that I have a pitch I like) and polishing up those first ten to thirty pages (again) and emailing them off in the hopes that one (or more) agents will like what they read.

And then, who knows, we’ll see … but mission number one is definitely accomplished.

Alright, let’s see if I’m ready.

Cape, tights, superpowers? Check. (Thank you, Chris, for reminding me to pack those.)

Well-worded oral pitch that clocks in at 87 seconds (thanks to some careful revisions) and that makes me giddy with pride? Check.

Well-researched list of agents, ranked according to best match for my work? Check.

Carefully chosen outfits that are both comfortable enough to wear all day and yet appropriately stylish? (Hey, you gotta look good.) Check.

Three-plus years of hard work, hopes and dreams? Che….

Wait a minute. The product of my three-plus years of hard work, hopes and dreams (and blood, sweat and tears) is staying behind. It’s here, this family, this house, this home. Two mostly healthy, mostly happy, remarkably normal children and one super-strong marriage.

Perspective? Check.

Three days until the Writers’ Digest Conference in New York City. And I am so excited.

My mom and I fly out Friday morning and the event starts that afternoon.  There will be  a variety of keynote speakers throughout the three days, as well as many sessions to choose from, covering everything from how to write an effective query letter to what to do after you’ve landed an agent. The highlight, of course, comes Saturday afternoon when we have two hours to sign up with any of fifty agents for the Pitch Slam. I’ve been carefully researching the agents attending to find those who represent memoir and who seem like they’d be a good match for me. I don’t have my final list yet (that’s what I really should be doing right now) but I think I’ll be pitching to about twenty.

Most importantly, I have a pitch that I really like (and that, if you’re lucky and if I’m feeling extra brave, I might just post on here). It runs a tiny bit long (100 seconds) but I don’t imagine they’ll cut me off right at 90 seconds. The second minute-and-a-half of each meeting is dedicated to questions and feedback, so I suppose (hope?) we can just lose ten seconds out of that. I can always race through what I want to say but much of the impact lies in well-placed (but brief!) pauses for emphasis.

I’ve decided to use the title The Wrong Side of the Window, at least for the purposes of this event. It doesn’t need a subtitle or an explanation and I’d much rather use my allotted time to sell the book itself and not its title. Besides, my original subtitle for Whoosh was One Ordinary Family, One Extraordinary Year, which — call me crazy — loses a bit of its flow when revised to One Ordinary Family, Three-and-a-Quarter Extraordinary Years!

So, that’s it. I’m super super excited. Appropriately nervous too, but mostly just excited.

A little piece of “news” that may have gotten lost during our vacation: Austin’s treehouse and the generous team of builders who made it happen were featured in The Real Estate section of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Sunday, January 2. Interestingly, we had no idea it was going to be published until Mark’s mom called that morning.

Mark got up and started flipping through the piles and even opened up the Real Estate section while I, from across the kitchen, glanced up and said, “Wait. Is that Austin’s treehouse on the cover?”

And indeed it was. A lovely picture of the four of us in front of the treehouse and a great article about all the people who made it a reality. I now have a full list of the companies and professionals who donated their time and materials and can get busy writing some Thank You notes!

The second page of the article includes “Austin’s story as written by his mother Krissy,” which is, well, true. It was taken from an email I sent to some of those involved in the project who had asked for “Austin’s background.” It’s fine and accurate and all that, but I sort of wish I’d have known it was going to be in the Sunday edition of Cleveland’s major newspaper so I could’ve brought my A-game!

 

I don’t intend to make anyone jealous (I too am looking at my window at another winter wonderland), but here are some more pictures from our trip.

Enjoying the pool (nice view, eh?)

And the beach

The littlest Dietrichs

One happy boy

This old school merry-go-round gave me the opportunity to
explain the words “litigious society” to Braedan when he asked
why we don’t have any closer to home!

Sweet boys

Braedan in the bird cage

Proof of how much the kids have grown in two years: they actually survived the pony riding (and even asked for more)!

I guess I’m having fun too

Increasing evidence that we need to carry a real camera with us and stop relying solely on our blurry phones . . .

Really, how hard would that be?

Til next time . . .

Perhaps you’ve been wondering where I’ve been.

Maybe you worried that some medical calamity had befallen us and we were back in the hospital buried under tests and procedures and worries.

No, not that.  (You know I always find my way to a computer no matter how calamitous the calamity.)

Perhaps you thought I was on a self-imposed hiatus from blogging to focus on the “real” writing in my life: working on my book and polishing my oral pitch in preparation for the writing conference at the end of the month.

No, not that either.  Although that would be wise and is about to come.

But if you guessed that I was relaxing on the sunny beaches of Jamaica with my beautiful children, well, then you’d be right on (mon).

Yes, we have just returned from six days in paradise, a biennial getaway with the almost-complete Dietrich clan: my parents, two brothers, their wives and a grand total of five grandchildren.

Mark had wisely advised against advertising our absence on so public a forum as this, hence the quiet departure. It was all very lovely and we’re now trying to re-accilmate to winter life, with the boys returning to school (and all of us returning to reality) tomorrow after an extra week of vacation.

A few teaser pics below, with more (and more details) to follow:

 

 

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