Friday, September 26, 2008

The Story of GRACE

Somebody asked me the other day where Grace: A Memoir came from in the first place. The short answer: out of my head. The long answer? The book is an expansion of an essay I wrote for my first residency at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

I entered the Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction program at Goucher in 1998. Someone from Goucher phoned to tell me I'd been accepted into the program on April 13. I remember the date because a few hours later my husband and I heard for the first time the name of the cancer (multiple myeloma) from which he was to die in 2000.

Given Fred' s illness, I had little brain matter to spare when I fround out that I needed to write new material for the August Goucher residency. Goucher has a limited residency program: M. F. A. candidates are only in residence for two weeks each summer. Continuing interaction and packet exchanges take place between student and mentor the rest of the year. Students often remain in close touch with each other as well; the bonds formed in the intense days, short nights, and unofficial (often liquid) evening study halls help ease the pressures of working alone between residencies.

To get back to my story, I wrote an 8-page essay for my first residency in 1998. By September, 1999, the essay was a 180-page manuscript, so I contacted the agent I'd met during the first Goucher residency. In January, 2000, after I made the changes she recommended, the book went out to 8 publishers. A week later, Crown Publishing, a division of Random House, made an offer. A few days later, the agent mentioned that The Free Press had also made an offer.

The selling point for Crown was (and for all I know this is an apocryphal story) that the editor had said to the publisher, "This book is so beautiful that if I have to get down on my knees and ask you to publish it, I will." I worked a very long time to learn how to make beauty with words, so I immediately loved this editor. Also, by then my husband had run out of treatment options so I was limiting decisions wherever possible. I never even asked what The Free Press had offered.

Crown requested some changes and 100 additional pages. Everything was on track for three months. Then on March 28 Fred went into a coma. He died on April 4. As my doctor explained later, "When Fred died, you died, too. Your life is over." Given that I was dead, it's not surprising that revisions on the book took until 2002. The book was finally released on March 25, 2003 -- two weeks after my sister's untimely death.

As you might suppose, I have mixed feelings about Grace. Is it a good book? Yes. Is it a book that matters? Yes. Is it beautiful? Yes. Did it get fine reviews? Yes, including one in O, the Oprah Magazine. Did I have fun making appearances when it was published, and are they still fun now? Yes. And are my memories of the book process --both the writing and publication -- hopelessly complicated (and to some extent poisoned) by grief? Yes.

One thing, though, is not complicated, and that's how I feel about Goucher College. I realized in late 1997 that I needed a formal writing program to advance as a writer, and that I needed to put myself in the presence of other writers. Goucher was ideal. A brilliant faculty, a committed group of candidates, and a serene campus were what I needed, and I found them all at Goucher. If you're thinking about entering an M. F. A. program, be sure to check out Goucher's program. And, no, they don't pay me to say this. Pure affection is what motivates me.

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