Friday, February 22, 2013

Writing: Paving the Way to Emotional Healing

Note: After writing this column, Georgeanne left for a three-week journey to India, to lead a tour for the San Diego Zoo. Two days later, on February 19, 2013, Dorothy Irvine passed away. We at San Diego Writing Women offer our sincerest condolences to Georgeanne and her family.  

By Georgeanne Irvine

It’s always rewarding when people are touched by something I’ve written.  I’m truly amazed by the unexpected responses I received from a short story I wrote late last year about appreciating and cherishing who my 94-year-old mother is now, even though Alzheimer’s has ravaged her mind and her vocabulary.

Initially, I wrote and posted it as my Writing Women blog on December 7, 2012:  Mom’s Limited World of Words: Priceless. But then, in light of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, I decided I didn’t want to send out my usual Christmas letter featuring funny animal stories and tales of my travels. Instead, I sent out a version of my mother’s story with the preface: “’Tis the season to reflect on the people we love in our lives and truly appreciate them for who they are.”

The notes and emails poured in, and I also received phone calls and exchanged many in-person conversations about my mom and her situation. I heard from friends in faraway places such as India, Australia, and Europe. Many people confided that they were dealing with the same situation with a spouse or parent. Others said they shared the story with their friends and family. Some, who had no personal experience with an Alzheimer’s patient were thankful for information about this debilitating brain disease.  A friend, who is a columnist for a major publication, was moved by the story and hopes to use excerpts in a future column. 

For me, the overall experience of writing the story and hearing back from so many people has been incredibly healing to me emotionally.  It has also made me even more aware of everything Mom says—so much so that now I take a notepad with me every time I visit her just in case she says something special.  I now have both an email file and a hard file labeled “Mom Said” for my notes.

Since I wrote the story in early December, Mom has provided me with several more “gift moments” to treasure.  She rarely speaks at all anymore but a few of my favorite gems are below.

At the dinner table, Mom hiccupped.  I was surprised when she piped up with “Excuse me.”  Another evening at dinner she coughed, pointed at her chest, and said, “There’s something bad in there” followed by “I think it’s getting better.”  My favorite dinner conversation was when the dining room emptied out and I asked Mom where everybody went.  Her response was, “Did they die?” 

A few other brief conservations just plain tickled me! This first one didn’t make much sense, but at least it was an exchange between us:

I said, “Hi Mom.  I’m Georgeanne.”  She paused for a moment and said, "And I'm Mrs. Smith."  I'm not sure who Mrs. Smith is but at least she comprehended what I was saying.  Her comment made me giggle, which made her smile.  Then I asked, “What did you do today?”  Mom replied, “Well, we cut the cashews,” which resulted in another giggle from me and another smile from Mom. 

This next conversation happened in early January when Mom was particularly alert and surprisingly very perky—I’d have to rate it as the best one of this year.  She kept talking and making incomprehensible comments while we were listening to live music after dinner.  Then she said something that sounded like “Is it going to rain this week?”  I wasn’t sure that’s what she said so I asked, “Is it going to rain this week?” meaning, is that what you asked?  Her response was priceless:  “I don’t know.  I’m asking you.”

However much time Mom has left on earth is anyone’s guess. She could live to be 100 or she could be gone tomorrow.  What I do know is that treasuring every moment I spend with her, keeping track of her words, writing about her, and sharing her story with others is helping me in more ways that I ever imagined. 
San Diego native Georgeanne Irvine has devoted more than three decades of her career to raising awareness about animals and wildlife conservation. By day, she is associate director of development communications for the San Diego Zoo, where she has worked for 35 years. George is also the author of more than 20 children’s books, plus numerous magazine, newspaper, and Web articles. George’s most recent work is the coffee table book, The Katrina Dolphins: One-Way Ticket to Paradise, which is a true story about 8 dolphins from an oceanarium that were washed out to sea during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and dramatically rescued a few weeks later.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Vacation or Bust

By Caitlin Rother 

I was going to write about the importance of taking a vacation from writing. How good it was to go to a spa in Calistoga and relax in hot spring pools of varying temperatures and let my mind go blank. I’d never done it before and, I have to admit, it was delightful to revitalize my creative juices by clearing out my brain and letting it rest after weeks of tireless editing the manuscript I just turned in to my editor. 

Taking a break was effective, because I got an idea for a new novel as I was taking a walk in the crisp air of Northern California, many miles from home. I felt that old optimism creeping back in.

But then I got a bad news email this morning about a non-fiction book project that I’d been working up for the past year and was planning to pursue for publication this year. So, instead, I’m going to write today about persistence, rebounding from rejection and the determination I have to perpetually call into play as I keep plugging away as a full-time author.

For now, it looks like the project is dead, and if I am unable to revive it, I have no other income lined up for the year. I didn’t have a contract for the book yet, so there was no guarantee anyway, but I had already spent a good deal of time and energy researching and interviewing and thinking as I was putting the book proposal together.

Yes, that is the glorious, glamorous life of a full-time author, a career that I have often likened to professional poker player, due to the high degree of risk and speculation involved.

Because I generally write about true-life tragedies – crimes and memoirs – the people I write about and work with often have experienced significant levels of trauma, and talking to me brings up all kinds of painful memories. It can make them physically and emotionally sick and cost them sleep. Most of them suck it up and share their stories, but sometimes, they just can’t face going there, or say they can, but find they can’t.

I have had many people cancel interviews, stop returning phone calls and emails, and disappear on me without explanation. Some are victims or their family members, others are police detectives or attorneys who are just overwhelmingly busy dealing with cases involving the traumatized.

I know it’s not personal so I don’t take it that way. Still, all of that is very stressful for me as well, as you might imagine, because I have deadlines to meet and bills to pay. But this is the kind of story that I’m drawn to or finds me, and it’s what I’m good at, so I have to be compassionate, understanding, flexible and, most important, I need to stay level-headed and refrain from panicking. When a source gets cold feet, I do a LOT of soothing and trying to ease fears, apprehension and pain; I have to be sincere and genuine or it doesn’t work.

Curiously, I also have to do this for myself, to perpetually put my own feelings into perspective. I have to temper the hope that people will buy the book that I’ve poured my guts into for the past however many months or years. For me, maintaining where I am is not really good enough -- I am always trying to reach new levels of achievement. I always try to set the bar as high or higher than my last book, which, if you have a New York Times bestseller, or a publicity-drawing title, both of which I’ve had in the past couple of years, is not an easy feat. It means that I place that much more pressure on myself to match my own past accomplishments. As a close friend of mine likes to say, if you’re competing against yourself, you will always lose. But I'm stubborn that way.

Sometimes I get tired and want to quit, go get a day job working for a guaranteed salary and health benefits. But that so far hasn’t worked out or the urge has dissipated as I sit in the sun at 11 a.m. and realize I've worked too hard and sacrificed too much to give up the freedom I’ve earned since I quit the newspaper business in 2006. Writing books is addictive, but to survive and thrive, I have to live my life one project at a time, one year at a time, and constantly re-evaluate.

So that’s what I do on a day like today. I look back at how long it’s taken and how hard I’ve worked to get where I am. I remind myself of how grateful I am for the successes I’ve had, despite bumps in the road like this one. And I refocus on the goals I’ve set for myself for the year. 

I’d purposely left myself an open window so I could explore some new things this year, stretch myself by trying to pursue some different types of writing, work on building my platform, and line up more speaking engagements. I just didn’t realize how big and open that window was going to be.

So I will open my mind and let the creative breezes blow on through. I’m fortunate in that several of my projects seem to have come out of nowhere, with an unexpected phone call, right through that open window. I will just keep telling myself that somehow, some way, I will find that next perfect project, the one that will help me get where I want to be.

As you might imagine, I already have a few ideas rolling around. I just got back from vacation.

New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as an investigative reporter for nearly 20 years, has written or co-authored eight books: Poisoned LoveDeadly Devotion/Where Hope BeginsMy Life, Deleted, Body Parts, Twisted TriangleNaked Addiction, and Dead Reckoning. Her latest book is Lost Girls, about the murder of innocents Chelsea King and Amber Dubois by sexual predator John Gardner. For more information, please check her website,

Friday, February 8, 2013

Private Substance

by Laurel Corona

And soon a branch, part of a hidden scene,
The leafy mind, that long was tightly furled,
Will turn its private substance into green,
And young shoots spread upon our inner world.

These lines, the end of the poem “A Light Comes Brighter,” by one of my favorite poets, Theodore Roethke, was on my mind as I walked home from the college this week. It’s about the first signs of the end of winter, and indeed they can be found in San Diego already--despite the limited drama of changing seasons around here.

The first time these lines etched themselves into my consciousness was almost thirty years ago, when my home on a canyon rim was scorched by wildfire, leaving the yard looking like a huge ashtray and the trees scorched to a russet brown..  “It’s a miracle how the fire went around this house,” the reporter from the local news chirped from my driveway. My heroic neighbors, who had spent the afternoon on my roof with garden hoses, greeted that comment in muttered disgust: “Yeah, some miracle.”

I thought the trees were dead, but within a month, I saw a hint of something and went out to investigate.  There, in clusters of perfect little emeralds, was life reasserting itself.

When I see the first leaf buds or early blossoms every year, my heart lifts at the sheer doggedness of the will to live that had quietly been doing its work all winter. I often think of Roethke’s poem then, particularly the beautiful last line, where he reminds us of our own internal winters, and the green shoots that come up, often by surprise, to signal that perhaps it is time to put behind whatever has been dreary and cold, and regrow ourselves.

My daily walk to and from the college where I teach takes me past the Rose Garden in Balboa Park, and there is something about the brutality with which rose bushes are cut back in late December that always wounds me. Today the nodes are swelling and the first leaves are breaking out, turning their private substance into green, just as the gardeners with their faith and pruning shears, knew they would.

Last February I lived not just in a different home in a different part of town, but in a different world.  My beloved partner, Jim, was declining noticeably from the cancer that would steal his life in April. When June came, I cried because he was not there to see the jacarandas whose purple blooms he had always appreciated with the glee of a child.  There was only winter for me last summer.  There was even less for him.

But sap does rise and the juices of this beautiful life do surge again.  Somewhere between then and now, the sad, furled leaves of my grief and sorrow opened to reveal something lush and green and full of promise. It’s called life. It’s called understanding that we are still here, and rejoicing in that single, beautiful fact.  It’s what our own internal green shoots are trying to tell us as every season, every stage of life beckons.


As seems to be often the case with my blog posts for San Diego Writing Women, you are probably at this point thinking, “What does this have to do with the writing life?” Well, quite a bit to do with mine.

A number of months ago, I wrote here that, “I can’t write about writing or the writing life today, because I am not doing any of the former, and as to the latter, I don’t have one.”  I’d have to say that’s still true.  I have been dormant. I haven’t written one word of fiction, or edited anything I had finished before Jim got sick. I’m perfectly okay with that, and have no sense of urgency and no plan to do anything different for now. 

In the poem, such a time is called winter, but for me, life is not cold and dreary, it’s simply not the season for the pen. In the last few months it’s been the right time for lecturing on a cruise line, seeing movies, taking up golf, making some new friends, palling around with old ones, and starting to think about loving again.  

I don’t speculate about my writing future, although my friends seem certain I have one. Blessings on you for your confidence and support.  Maybe you are right, but unlike the roses in Balboa Park that shared their wisdom with me this week, I am not stuck with being able to produce only one kind of flower.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

On the Nature of Truth in Nonfiction Writing

By Caitlin O’Connell

I’m sitting in rural Georgia right now looking out over a small finger of the twenty-four square mile Lake Sinclair, with a niggling feeling at the back of my mind relating to the nature of truth in nonfiction storytelling. This issue is so irksome that I can barely enjoy watching to two Great Blue Herons fumble past on the best wings they can muster, something having startled them from the trees, sending their all-legs-and-wings stature scrambling aloft the glassy pink water at sunset.

I keep asking myself (and other writers) how it could be considered OK to call a work “nonfiction” when an author uses some true event or person as a construct to structure their fictionalized story around. If the line between truth and fiction is arbitrary—left up to the writer’s discretion—then what? Buyer beware? I work really hard to keep the truth in place in my nonfiction writing, while still trying to tell a rich story. I had always taken the word “creative” in the term “creative nonfiction” to mean using the tools of fiction to create an engaging (and true) narrative.

I won a national award for one of my nonfiction books last year and at the award ceremony this discussion came up and I left the conversation very conflicted. And I’ve been conflicted over differing perspectives on the nature of truth ever since. Because I’m teaching a writing course at Georgia College called It’s All In The Telling (as a Newel Visiting Distinguished Scholar), I’m trying to formulate my angst into a lecture on the topic. Hence, why I can’t enjoy the blue herons until the matter is settled in my mind.

There is talk of the idea of compressed time in creative nonfiction, where elements of the story are best served by combining time elements or even characters. Sure, one can compress certain time elements for effect, whether something happened just yesterday or some days ago, but when you combine different characters for effect or compress time to the point of no longer representing the truth of a situation, but serving as a convenient dramatization, in my humble opinion, that’s a whole different story—a fictional story. In my personal handbook for truth-telling in nonfiction, any minor tweaking of time cannot alter the underlying facts. But this is a bone of contention in the nonfiction world.

For example, although I loved the book, THE PERFECT STORM, it was a fictionalized account of what may have happened on the Andrea Gail as no one lived to tell about it. But the book was billed as nonfiction and did extremely well (as a disclaimer, I thought the book was genius—just couldn’t possibly be the “truth” entirely and thus I would call it historical fiction, or perhaps what the tv programmers are calling factual drama??).

This brings me to my thought experiment. My husband and I have been having some fun involving “time-compression photography” and I’m using the result here to illustrate my point. Take this example of real events. Consider this unaltered photograph of my brother just before New Year’s while jumping in the water for a cool down between the island of Maui and Lanai.

Next, let’s focus our attention on the photograph of the visitor that swam by just minutes later, only my brother was not in the shot with this beautiful humpback whale.

Now what happens if we compress time? My brother was under water in this very geo-location some ways off of Lahaina at a good depth, while turning around to give me the local Hawaiian hello (shaka) with both hands. And this whale was also almost in this very spot less than five minutes later. If we compile two truths, overlay them on top of one another—then voila, my brother is a whale rider! Amazing, right? Do we care that he did or didn’t ride the whale just as long we were entertained?

Is this next time compressed image a more acceptable shade of grey?

At what point do legitimate realities get compressed such that they are no longer true? Do we care? Does the audience have the right to a truth-suspension disclaimer? Sure, this time-compressed image is definitely entertaining….but can’t the truth also be entertaining? If one can’t find a way to make the truth entertaining, then why not just call it fiction?

This is also a hotly debated topic in nonfiction tv programming these days and some don’t see my complaints as problematic or an attack on the integrity of nonfiction programming—just a reality of a changing industry.

Check out this panel on the wildly successful Hatfield & McCoy series on the History Channel that took place last Monday at ReelScreen for more details on the controversy: