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My husband Tom and I are just hours away from celebrating our shared sixty-first birthday in Scottsdale, Arizona. It’s been a remarkable and synchronistic year.
July 6, 2017 began with a surprise. It was me lying on a gurney. Tom stood by me. Calling my sons. Squeezing my hand. Assuring me that the doctors and nurses at Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis (less than ten miles from my boyhood home) would take good care of me. I had just suffered a mild heart attack on our way west as we were driving to our new home in Arizona.
I will never forget that crazy day in muggy St. Louis. Craning my neck to steal a tear-stained hug from an anonymous and kind nurse. Telling her I was a writer. Explaining that I would share this experience to ease the pain for some other poor soul. Doing so would help me heal. It would be my salvation. The story became my third book: An Unobstructed View.
A year has passed, but my St. Louis synchronicity continues. The Major League Baseball schedule makers decided to send the St. Louis Cardinals to Arizona in early July–exactly one year after my brush with destiny. They paired my beloved team from the bleacher seats of my 1960s with the Arizona Diamondbacks in my new hometown in an Independence Day contest in the desert.
Needless to say, Tom and I bought two bleacher tickets for last night’s game. Before we found our seats, I snapped this synchronistic selfie of the two of us … with me, wearing my weathered Cardinals cap. Several hours later, the Redbirds escaped with a sloppy 8-4 victory.
But, in the scheme of life, the sweetest triumph of all happened for me a year ago on July 6, 2017 in St. Louis. That’s when I was reborn with my husband by my side. It happened in the city that first welcomed me.
When I woke up this morning, I panicked because it’s July 1st. Pride month had come and gone without me writing a word about it. But then I quickly regained my equilibrium. There is no expiration date on Pride. I’m proud of being gay 365 days a year.
That doesn’t mean I don’t feel anxiety and trepidation on a regular basis. I do. Especially in a world where the relentless news cycle reminds me that love and respect seem to be running in short supply for those who are different and disenfranchised. That’s probably what prompted me to spend $38 on this “LOVE IS LOVE” t-shirt, which my husband and I saw hanging in a window at a Banana Republic store in Chicago a few weeks ago.
Anyway, for my own peace of mind right now, I need to acknowledge and focus on the positive experiences in my life. Moments when I feel respect and pride. One of them occurred here in Arizona just a few nights ago.
I sing with the Phoenix Metropolitan Men’s Chorus. We are a diverse group of talented gay men of all ages, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. The Arizona Diamondbacks invited us to sing the national anthem at Pride Night before the start of the June 29 Dbacks game with the San Francisco Giants at Chase Field in Phoenix.
Before the game, as we exercised our vocal chords and gathered to make our way into the ballpark, courteous members of the Dbacks’ staff worked to locate a wheelchair for one of our members who needed assistance. He’s a beloved, longtime member of the chorus who has recovered from a stroke and returned to sing again. Once the wheelchair arrived, we were on our way. We wound up and down long corridors underneath the ballpark. Ultimately, we were escorted onto the outfield in front of four microphones. That’s when I gazed up at the crowd. I was surrounded by my chorus mates and some twenty thousand fans. A few minutes later, the public address announcer introduced us.
Time stood still. We sang beautifully. The fans cheered. We were thrilled. I was proud.
Love is love.
Last year, I had the opportunity to meet Joyce Maynard, renowned author of sixteen books of fiction and non-fiction. Most notably the bestselling memoir At Home in the World. She was a guest lecturer at a writer’s workshop I attended in Tucson. I vividly remember one piece of advice Joyce gave the group: That as writers it was up to us to tell the forbidden story.
As a memoir writer, I believe every bit of what Joyce had to say. I strive to keep her gem of literary gumption at the forefront of what I produce. Telling the truth with personal passion. Exploring every emotion with honesty. Delivering authenticity in everything I write and publish. Anything less would be misleading and manipulative.
On the final night of the workshop, Joyce stood in front of the group and read a chapter from her latest book, The Best of Us. It’s the story of the love she shared with her husband Jim and their profound journey before, during and after his battle with pancreatic cancer shattered their lives. I was fortunate to be one of fifty or so other writers in the room that night. All of us were captivated by the poetic poignancy of Joyce’s chosen words and the gift of hearing her tell her story in her own voice with her own inflections.
This past week I finally had the time to read The Best of Us cover to cover on my flight from Phoenix to Chicago and back. The book is a testament to the power of love and loss. An ode to capturing the fleeting, indelible moments (both sweet and bitter) that come with only the most rare once-in-lifetime relationships.
Thank you, Joyce, for telling your personal forbidden stories. For sparing no details about the loves and losses in your life. You give all writers something beautiful, truthful, grand and glorious to aspire to.
My husband and I sold our suburban Chicago home and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona nearly a year ago. We hadn’t been back to the Windy City. Until last week, that is.
I’ll admit it. I was anxious about the trip. Primarily because I had encountered and survived a health scare on the way west. The experience changed and shook me to such a degree. I just wasn’t sure what it would feel like to spend a week in Illinois again. So much of my time in the past twelve months has been devoted to getting well, building a new life in the desert southwest, and reflecting on my previous home in Mount Prospect. (Incidentally, all of that led me to draft, reconfigure, rewrite, complete and publish my latest book, An Unobstructed View, a few weeks before my return to the Midwest.)
Naturally, I needed and wanted to see and hug loved ones again, who still live in the Land of Lincoln: my younger son, my sister, my sister-in-law. Not to mention close friends and neighbors. All of them kind. Concerned about our welfare. But living far away from us now. Seventeen hundred miles east. They were the impetus and motivation for our return. I knew that being with them again and feeling their love would remind me just how deep my Illinois roots still run. That I would always hold a special place in my heart for my thirty-seven years living in the Chicago area. Just as I do for the first two decades of my life in Missouri.
Anyway, last week, I felt the Illinois love again … without all the responsibilities of jobs and homeownership of my previous Illinois existence. Though we didn’t have the time to visit with everyone we wanted to see, our first trip back included the moments that mattered most: relaxing days and nights with friends in our old Mount Prospect neighborhood; a surprise invitation from the new owners of our previous home to step in and admire their freshly painted interior; quiet meals in the suburbs with our sisters and a dear friend who officiated our wedding; a musical evening in Chicago at St. James Cathedral watching and listening to our Windy City Performing Arts friends perform “My Life: A Mixtape”; a Father’s Day brunch on the north side with my son that extended into a fun afternoon of World Cup watching; and dinner with a close friend along the Chicago River on our last night in town.
That final stop is where my husband captured this photo of me. Watching the water traffic float by. Admiring the vibrant city that used to be my home.
Now the circle is complete.
A year ago, everything seemed to be running like clockwork. I had begun to write my third book. My husband and I had found a buyer for our suburban Chicago home. We were making final preparations for our cross-country move to Arizona and our sixtieth birthday celebration. Both were only a month away.
But I should have known better. Life had taught me there was nothing certain about any journey. I had already navigated the ups and downs of my St. Louis childhood, struggled along as a single dad, shed illusions of a straight existence in favor of an authentic life, and retraced the path of my mother’s life from fertile ground. Yet, I didn’t expect the journey I was about to embark upon with my husband–waving goodbye to one home and resurfacing in another–would prove to be as circuitous.
Needless to say, we encountered an unexpected detour on our way west. Everything changed. I struggled but eventually rediscovered my rhythm and began to write again. An Unobstructed View was born just a few days ago. I received the first copy of my new book in my mail this week. I held it in my hand and breathed deep, thankful for the gift of life and the power of perseverance.
What have I learned? Keep calm and write on.
I’m a firm believer that we each have at least one meaningful memoir–vivid stories about our lives, our loves, our losses, our dreams and our realities–in us.
In fact, I’ve written and published two memoirs: From Fertile Ground in 2016 and Tales of a Rollercoaster Operator in 2017. (This photo of my Johnson family members about to board the S.S. Admiral in St. Louis in the summer of 1954 appears in my second book with the up-and-down stories of my Missouri childhood.)
In the summer of 2018, I will complete and release my third memoir, An Unobstructed View. As I’ve written my stories, I’ve learned what it takes to create a compelling memoir. If you’re like me and have a deep desire to share your story with the world, I’ve assembled these ten tips to help you along the way.
- Find your flow. Begin by carving out a little time each day to journal. Jot down whatever comes to mind. Write about a person, place or memory that has special meaning in your life. Over time, your writing will become a habit that gains momentum.
- Scour your memorabilia. Go through old photos, letters and newspaper clippings you’ve kept. Set aside the most relevant ones that align with your passion. Refer to these to fuel your writing.
- Set the stage. Establish your point of view. Describe what your story is about and why it’s important to you. Take the time to paint a picture of the location/setting of your memoir and describe the arc of your story.
- Write what you feel. Go beyond reporting what you know. The details are important, but not as much as how you were affected by the occurrences that appear in your story. Tell your reader how you feel. Describe your experience—how the positive, negative and unusual happenings in your story touched your life.
- Tell your story. Talk about your truths. Share anecdotes and relevant details that support what you have to say. Be authentic. If you do, your reader will want to follow you on your journey.
- Follow the story. As you write your story, the process may take you to new places (literally and figuratively). Do your best to remain open to possibilities that may unfold (i.e., traveling back to a familiar place to retrace your steps) so that your writing captures the essence of a life’s journey filled with both expected outcomes and some surprises.
- Pace yourself. Memoirs are personal stories. As a result, you are likely to encounter strong emotions on your writing journey. Give yourself the time you need. When it feels like too much, take a break for a day or two. When you do, you will come back to your work refreshed.
- Share your work sparingly. As you write your story, you may be tempted to share it with well-intentioned family members and friends. Be careful. This is your story. While you are in the drafting stage, hold tight to your writing convictions with little outside influence.
- Decide how it ends. There is no prescribed conclusion or resolution to your story. You get to decide where and how it ends. A good rule of thumb is to find a event, place or moment that moves the reader with insights into what you’ve learned along the way.
- Find a good editor. Once you have completed the draft of your memoir, you may decide you want to try to publish your work. If you do, you will want to find a reliable editor. There are lots of good resources to help you. For instance, Writer’s Market is a thorough reference that lists editors and literary agents who are more inclined to consider memoir submissions. If you prefer, you also have the option of self-publishing your work. In either case, a skilled editor is essential to help you develop and polish your manuscript.