I submitted this last year for a young man (his homeys called him “Christmas”) I had the pleasure of knowing him for only a brief moment of his short 16-year old life. He was too young to die and it’s too soon to forget Chris’s smile.
His homeys called him Christmas
for the gifts he scored and poured
out of his bag of tricks –
for the rock candy and snowballs
he stuffed into stockings with a
twinkle in his eyes and a smile
to light up the skies of Duarte.
No more dope. He toyed with the idea
of hope, rubbing its sweetness
across his gums, over his tongue.
Whether they were naughty or nice;
black or brown, his homeys might
like the taste of something that wouldn’t
cost a lung, a tattooed arm or a leg.
He dared to believe in change
even though he didn’t trust
he’d see 18. Not much older
than Jesus who entered the Temple
to chase away the money changers –
those defilers of his hood, 16-year old
Christmas was already marked.
I like to think he turned his back –
headed home before five shots rang out
ripping metal through flesh – shattered bone –
pierced heart. Christmas is over.
Gifts of flowers, candles and Teddy bears
line the sidewalk; the milk curdles,
and the cookies crumble to dust.
Feeling tremendously blessed as we head up north to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
In my case, I needed to lay down the tracks; get the story or at least a first draft written. Fortunately, I noticed a weekend course being offered at UCLA on How to Write & Sell a Nonfiction Book Proposal, by Agent Betsy Amster and Leigh Ann Hirschman.
I suppose there is no right or wrong way. I usually just dive in and start swimming and boy am I glad I latched on to the How to life ring. There are things I need to know going forward if I want to sell this project and writing a book proposal is an eminent and daunting part of the process. One which I learned can be even more challenging than writing the story itself.
Last Saturday, I sat in the classroom in Rolfe Hall intimidated with the at least 50 other non-fiction writers who are going to make a difference somehow: doctors, lawyers, movie studio execs, marketing people all with 5 easy steps to cure something or change the world (comparison of Features & Benefits section of the seminar). There were also a handful that had amazing cookbook ideas (an already crowded market), including a Russian student with an idea for one (something about Leo Tolstoy’s recipes! Seriously?!) There was even a woman writing her grandfather’s (Carl Laemmle, for God’s sake!) bio. I wanted to pack up my notebook and pencil while there might still be time for a refund. Some only had ideas; some had been blogging or writing short pieces for awhile like what to expect the first year of baby’s life (I can tell you I didn’t do much reading during my babies’ first years). Nonetheless, she had accumulated enough anecdotes to sew into a giant patchwork quilt for her next baby. Me, what I lack in experience and professional degrees, I make up for in tenacity and perseverance. Within two weeks, I had 73,579 words; that’s 279 double-space Times New Roman 12-point font pages of narrative and only part of a story about an Ethiopian women’s journey out of a mud hut, into Mother Teresa’s shelter in Italy and then to America where she ends up owning her own 5-star restaurant in northern California (I also now have 12 pages of a book proposal. All that’s missing are the sample chapters. That’s just par for me to put off the hard stuff.)
But do I have a story readers won’t want to put down? Is my concept unique? Who is my target audience? Do I have a marketing plan (I’m blogging aren’t I?) Dr. Menbere “Menbe” Aklilu loves to take the stage to tell her story. Problem solved. So now, what’s my competition? (Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, of course, or Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson and Veronica Chambers, or even Dave Eggers’ fictional What is the What?)
During the How To seminar, we were given handouts, including sample proposals. There was a section entitled About the Author: The sample authors were doctors, Harvard, Yale and Cambridge Grads with PhDs (I shrunk in my classroom seat made for 20-something-year-old derrieres). So, about me? Well, I’m smart enough to know that my subject Dr. Menbere Aklilu is someone to be recognized. She is the right person to narrate her story. She’s already out there delivering a powerful and amazing story as I sit here and write. And, there’s the word: WRITE. I do believe I am the right person to write Menbe’s story. The longer I sit with her and laugh and cry with her as we dig deeper into her history and that of her homeland, I do believe I am the right person to do the job. The more vertically we dig, we are finding the story full of gold; a story that is juxtaposed with the sometimes violent and tragic, yet always persevering culture of Ethiopia. Ethiopia, a country I’m excited to learn more about and the more I work on getting the story, the more I transform my thoughts and start to believe I am Menbe.
There are many ways to skin a cat (metaphor for selling or writing a book) and of course, there are those of you who simply want to write a book or memoir to leave for your children and grandchildren, but if you’re serious about selling your masterpiece, I recommend researching how to write and sell a non-fiction book proposal. It’s a great place to map out the direction for the journey on which you wish to embark.
Now back to writing!
How does one write a ghost story about a ghost? Something without a skeleton or sinew or skin. In other words, if you’re writing about a person who doesn’t have a past, has forgotten it or doesn’t want to remember (anything other than the wonderful smell of berbere sauce and buhe bread), then you are in story hell. No need to answer the first question.
This ghost has plenty of heart and spirit, however. I’ve been asked to ghostwrite for a businesswoman, philanthropist and now my friend. Dr. Menbere Aklilu is a bubbly, unreserved Ethiopian (she wasn’t the kind of child who fit in anywhere much less Ethiopia. Had her mother known about Ritalin, this might be a different story. As it is right now it’s just a story about getting a story.) She’s a beautiful wide-smiling, nutmeg-colored woman, just shy of flamboyant, yet she is dramatic and she tears up at the drop of a garbanzo bean. She screams before she laughs and her hands flutter and flap like a hummingbird when she’s happy or agitated (something she says she learned while living in Italy; that and making a killer pizza). Menbe is quite a character.
Tune in to see how I finally get this tenacious hummingbird to open up and release the nectar she’s been holding in for too many years. This is the story people want to hear; the story the media wants to write about and put on the news; the story universities want to listen to during their commencements speeches. I Am Menbe is not just a Cinderella story or a rags to riches story. While it may be another tale about Coming To America, it’s also a success story full of grit and passion, tears and laughter. I just need to wake up the ghost. (Hmmm. Ghosts and Hummingbirds. I know I have a couple of mixed metaphors here, but that’s the advantage of writing in this forum.)
Another wannabe with blind ambition,
Italian Singing Nun Sister Cristina
would like to see Madonna’s face when
she hears the nun singing Like a Virgin.
Like, I think she would turn in her grave.
Oh, wait she means the other Madonna —
with Blond Ambition who POPularized being
a virgin grossing lots of moolah from sales
of rosaries, crucifix earrings and lace gloves.
The Pope had warned his flock to look away.
See The Racing Nun laughing all the way to the Vatican
Bank in her new Porsche from their corporate charity
event held in the Sistine Chapel at $5900 a head.
The Pope looks the other way, Madonna gasps
from the grave and Jesus topples tables in the temple.
Speaking of Presidents, Poop, Paltrow and Parties (yesterday’s blog), do you pop out at parties? Do you feel unpoopular? Well, do you?
This is something I’d like to explore about myself and welcome your comments and feedback. We all feel different at times and sometimes unpopular. I know I have and it’s all about perspective, isn’t it? I don’t think anyone else in my family feels the same as I do.
My father was a gringo and my mother a Mexican, so what did that make me? I’m only half, only a part of two different cultures. Pulled apart like carnitas. Where was I to fit in? Does the boot fit or the huarache?
No solo soy gringa con sangre azul, I was born in the barrio during a time when Mexican parents insisted their children abandon their language and yet my gringo father insisted I speak Spanish. My Mexican mother made tortillas but insisted I use the right fork and proper English.
I love that our country is filled with such a mosaic of people and cultures. What has been your experience trying to fit in?
SHut up, suit up and show up.
It’s a dirty job, but some of us only get to
pilot a client’s yacht to the poop pump.
Mooring with a failed engine, a tricky maneuver
especially when dumping waste at the pump.
But, hey, we all do what we gotta do, and as I jump
from deck to dock, I see a seagull, or is it a plane?
and land on my butt and my back and see not stars
but Marine One escorting our President someplace.
It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to pilot
the President to Gwyneth Paltrow’s party
where he’ll chat about such topics as Isis,
Ebola and the upcoming elections.
Hey, some people get to don a tuxedo,
others of us, an orange hazmat suit.
As Marine One flies over, I’m able to lift
my head to salute. Nothing broken. Thank
God for ObamaCare, just in case I can’t
roll over, stand up, and limp to the pump,
to press the button to dump the poop
After all, we all gotta do (and speaking of do)…
Hopefully not sticking out under a house.