Two Steps Forward, One Step Back (not a typo)
My last book - Fag Hags, Divas and Moms: The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community - took a lot longer to write than I expected. It wasn’t because I had writer’s block, or that my research was hard to compile. I had two major setbacks that I could not have predicted.
I started on the book in earnest in the fall of 2015. The first year of working on it was a whirlwind: interviewing women, doing deep dives into little-known corners of the HIV/AIDS community, revisiting those dark early days of the epidemic. I had so much help, from two small crowdfunding campaigns and incredible leads from friends and strangers alike. People were excited about the book and I hadn’t written a word.
At the end of October, 2016, I hit my first setback. On a research trip to NYC, I tripped and fell - my fault for not watching where I was going - dislocating one finger and breaking four bones in my writing hand. Luckily, it happened within spitting distance of a stand-alone emergency room, where a hand surgeon happened to be on premises. I was whisked off to Lenox Hill Hospital where the surgeon inserted five metal pins in my hand. Six hours after I fell, I was in a cab on the way back to my hotel, my arm in a finger-to-elbow brace and sling.
Such an injury would have been traumatic enough, but I was 900 miles away from home, alone, and it was my dominant hand. Because I couldn’t use my right hand at all, or risk dislodging the pins, I had to quickly learn to do things with my left hand: bathe, dress, type. I returned to Chicago for what turned out to be 29 physical therapy sessions (each one an hour or more) with a lovely, sadistic woman who was astonished that I regained full use of my hand (she didn’t believe I would when she met me). The pins came out - without anesthetic - about six weeks into the months-long therapy.
By April, I was in good shape and back at work, desperate to catch up. I found myself on a roll again: interviewing, researching and beginning to put marketing efforts into place. But that was short-lived.
That September, I found out my mother had stopped taking all her meds. I was able to get her back on them quickly, but that episode led to an initial diagnosis of early dementia by Thanksgiving. A few days before Christmas she fell and broke her hip, necessitating surgery and weeks in rehab. I spent 5 days a week for almost three months in St. Louis, driving back and forth to Chicago every week. I stopped writing as soon as she went into the hospital and did not pick it up again until a couple months after she died in March, 2018.
Mom felt terrible that I stopped writing to help care for her, but I was glad to do it and never regretted a moment.
Although I felt I was in a good place with the book before then, it became clear to me almost immediately that the time off - and perhaps the reason - somehow improved the book. When it finally came out in March, 2019, it was a different and much better book than I’d imagine it would be.
I wondered if I’d face similar, dramatic delays with my current book - Friend Grief and COVID: Pandemic Stories. Granted, the pandemic is still raging, but I started working on the book well into it. And so far I’ve avoided getting COVID myself. What could go wrong?
No, I never asked myself that question. I’m much too superstitious for that. I didn’t even have a firm publication date in mind. But not long ago, I set a date for sending the manuscript to my editor: July 15. And almost immediately, I hit a snag.
Little did I know that there are other viruses making the rounds, viruses that present in ways similar to COVID, but aren’t COVID. It was my bad luck to catch one of them. I have no idea how I got it, and I haven’t passed it along to my husband or anyone else. But it has left me with little stamina to work; sometimes little interest, too.
I’ve been able to keep up with some of my research: still adding more, going deeper into what I already have, whittling down my to-be-read pile. I’ve given occasional thought to marketing, which may include a change of title to avoid being lumped in with conspiracy theory books. Some things are decided, such as locations for a couple book launch events and who from the book I’ll include in the presentations.
Through luck or serendipity, I’ve started doing some online presentations and podcasts on the subject, which helps build the audience and interest. “Are you resting?” a friend of mine asks often. I am, but luckily, this kind of work isn’t physically strenuous.
In a month I’ll head to NYC to hunker down and crank out that manuscript. I’m not ready to do it yet, though bits and pieces are popping into my head. This is how all of my books have been birthed, so to speak: research until I finally have to say ‘stop!’ and then let the information flow so I can organize it into a coherent and effective manuscript.
I should be used to it now: not just the big delays but the wonderful serendipity that occurs during those delays. It happened with the last book and is definitely happening with this one. But this time it’s not one step forward and two steps back. It’s the opposite. And that’s a big improvement already.