Real and Imagined

Essays and Novels by Amy Tatko

Give and Take

Raise your hand if you enjoy asking for help. Yeh, that’s what I thought. Me, too. I feel much better when I am giving than when I am taking. Yet, I am here today to ask for your help yet again.

I need your help (PLEASE POST A REVIEW OF MY NOVEL(S) ON AMAZON!), but first I’d like to give you something: my thoughts about this business of asking for help, and a book recommendation (at the end, so keep reading…).

Knowing when and how to ask for help is an important part of life. I am grateful to two loving and brilliant women for teaching me the value of requesting help.

Years ago, when I was diagnosed with “walking pneumonia,” I did not have the skills (social, emotional, all of it) to ask for help. And anyway, when you tell an active, hands-on, young mother that she has “walking” pneumonia, all she hears is that she ought to be walking around, doing all that she usually does. I got sicker and sicker. One day, when I arrived at my eldest daughter’s Waldorf kindergarten classroom, her wonderful teacher, Libby, took one look at me and asked whether I had help. Libby is infinitely wise and quite direct, and as she looked at me with her no-nonsense question, I started to cry. I knew in that moment that I was really sick—sicker than I had ever been—and that I could not manage everything on my own.

“Amy needs help,” Libby called out to the other parents. “Who can take her girls for the afternoon? Who can make dinner for her family tonight? Who will drive her girls to school tomorrow?”

Libby looked very comfortable as she fired off questions into the crowd of parents gathered in the yard outside the kindergarten room. This was a woman who knew how to find help—and fast. Volunteers stepped forward, one after another. I was astonished to see how easy it was to ask for help and how willing most people were to offer their help at a time of need.

Then Libby looked at me again in that way of hers that nobody argues with and that leaves us in awe of her power and grace. She told me to go home, get into bed, and take care of myself. I did. I was able to because others were helping me by caring for my children. Libby made it all so simple, and I have learned again and again since then that asking for help is indeed simple. The hard part is recognizing and accepting that we need help.

A couple years after the illness that ended with full-fledged pneumonia and two ribs broken from coughing, on a pew at the Unitarian Church of Montpelier I learned more from the wise and wondrous minister Rev. Mara Dowdall about seeking help. Mara now preaches up the road in Burlington, and I still miss and cherish her very dearly. (Amen.) Mara spoke on several occasions about taking care of oneself and finding balance as a spiritual community of individuals who are generally much happier in the role of giver than taker. She taught me how to assess when to say yes and when to say no to requests for my help and demands on my time and energy. She also taught me that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

So, with Libby and Mara beside me figuratively (I am now reaching for their hands), here is what I need: reviews of my two novels posted on Amazon to trigger their algorithm, attract attention, and entice new readers to buy my books.

Will you help me with this?

I can’t do it alone, and I have exhausted my resources (financial, emotional, all of it) for my do-it-yourself project of publishing and promoting my writing independently. My decision to shift to national/global distribution for my books took time and soul-searching. I am now prepared to give money from my book sales to the corporate giant that is the documented reason for the drastic changes in the publishing industry that have made traditional publication nearly impossible for many debut literary writers like myself. A few years ago, I came close to getting a publishing contract, but the aggressive (and illegal) business practices of a wicked force (guess who) had a ripple effect that moved the finish line farther away each time that I was just about to cross it.

For the past year and a half, I have done all that I can to promote my writing through my website and social media. I had a giveaway on Goodreads, I went on local television, and I worked with a a marketing mentor. I’ve tweeted (gods help me) and posted on Facebook literary offerings that I thought others might find interesting. The truth is, though, that I’m not a fan of social media, and I can’t stand begging and competing for your attention.  

Please go to Amazon and post a review —short is fine!—of either/both of my novels. Only positive reviews will help me, so if you’ve read my stuff and liked it, I would be extremely grateful for your review on the website of the corporate giant that can connect me to new readers.

I’m a big believer in the give and take of life. I look at posts and “like” or even “love” what I can as a small show of support for others’ interests, lives, work, challenges, and dreams. That one-click process is easy. What I’m asking you to do is much harder. You’ll need to read my book, think about it, go to Amazon, log into or create your account, and then write something about the book. I know I’m asking a lot. I know that you are busy. I know that everyone everywhere all the time is asking for your attention, your money, your time, your help.

All I can say is please and thank you.

And now I’d like to give you a book recommendation:

AUTUMN by ALI SMITH (Pantheon Books, 2016)

This short, tight, dense novel drew me in from the first line with its highly original voice, wisdom, and wit. The Scottish-born Smith writes in the tradition of Virginia Woolf and is master of the concise yet lyrical expression of what it is to be human in these confusing and often disturbing modern times. In a mere phrase she can express a complex truth about the human condition that most capable novelists would need a full paragraph to address. Her narrative puts the reader immediately into the story and into the characters’ lives with no excess and no explanation. Autumn tells the interwoven, parallel stories of young Elisabeth and 100-year-old Daniel, their beautiful friendship that spans from Elisabeth’s childhood to her thirties, and their shared love of art and the 1960s British pop artist Pauline Boty. Smith leaves plenty of space for the reader to follow and imagine this brilliantly crafted tale. Autumn is the first novel in her planned Seasonal quartet, and I will soon begin Winter and quietly cheer on Smith, one of my new favorite authors, as she works on the other two installments.

The Blank Page

The blank page stares at me. I grin back. I am ready. I am energized. I am fully fueled to turn that empty screen into the first word, the first sentence, and the first page of my new novel. This is one of my most favorite adventures in all of life: writing a novel. I love the thrill and challenge of creating characters, building a story, layering a narrative for complexity, and weaving in themes about what it is to be human. To write a novel is to spend years with one story, one cast of characters, one set of ideas. I love the long slow journey from page one to The End. For me, the process of turning a blank page into a bookmaking something out of nothingis a human miracle.

Many writers feel differently. They dread the blank page. They fear the beginning of a new project. I understand. It is daunting and at times scary. The making of a novel is an enormous undertaking. Self-doubt lurks in the shadows of my writing room and taunts me to abandon the absurd notion that I know how to write and instead spend my time on a more valuable, lucrative, or useful endeavor. At times, self-doubt asks me to defend my perseverance after mountains of rejection: Why write another novel, Tatko? Who’s going to read the damn thing anyway? Nobody asked you to write another novel.

Pish, I tell all forms of self-doubt. This is who I am and what I do. Leave me to it!

The characters arrive first, and they never announce their arrival. I may be running on the dirt roads near my house or brushing my teeth when all of a suddenVOILA!a character appears in my mind. She stands right in the center of my head and blocks my view of everything else. She is in the midst of something, and it’s typically something big: a crisis, a decision, a secret, a tragedy, a life-changing event. She moves around, she contemplates and ponders, she speaks to other people who crowd into my brain and demand my attention, too.

Characters are arriving all the time. The ones that stick around get my full attention. Appearance after appearance, through many months, they take on a life of their own. Usually at some point I notice that there are two channels playing in my head at the same time: The first shows the character in action, as I observe. The second features the character and me discussing and debating who he is, what he really wants, and how I can best pull him out of my mind and put him onto the page. There is a lot of exploring and negotiation involved.

“I think maybe your parents died,” I once told a newly forming character. “You’ve been an orphan since age ten.”

“Oh, no. Do NOT do that to me,” the character begged.

“Why not?” I demanded. Novels are full of dead people. Death and the fear of it raise the stakes, get the reader invested, and keep the tension running high.

“There are way too many dead people in your books,” my character argued. He may be right. “And you can see that I have a hunched back. How many horrible experiences am I supposed to endure?”

“Good point,” I said. “You do have a huge hump on your back. Wait. Or maybe you have terrible burns all over your body. Or maybe both.”

“Definitely not both,” the character said. “Pick one.”

And then I heard Charles Dickens: “He’s right. Pick one.”

And on it goes. If you happen upon a writer who appears to be staring off at nothing, be assured that she is probably hard at work.

Yes, the blank page delights me. The sense of possibility and wonder thrills me. Lately, I have been thinking about the notion of “The Blank Page” as a metaphor. How often do we get a Blank Page in life? A fresh start? A new chance? Something totally unexpected and absolutely unknown tossed in our path? I think as we get older we get fewer Blank Pages. We have our routines, and for many of us, the routines involve a job, a partner, family, errands, bills, schedules (it’s all so glamorous!), and a big juggling act to keep everything moving and everyone thriving. When was the last time you changed your job? Or started a new hobby? Took a class? Studied a language or learned to play an instrument?

When was the last time that you opened to a Blank Page?

I have some ideas for new blank pages in areas of my life outside of my writing room. There are a couple biggies, and when I think about them, I feel a surge in adrenaline and a growing sense of hope and excitement. Far too often, though, the pragmatic voice in my head gets loud, and I wind up troubleshooting every potential obstacle until I have killed the spirit of The Blank Page.

I’ve always wanted to play the cello, and, by gods and goddesses, I think it’s time to do it. I’ll rent a cello and find a teacher. I’ll take a lesson once a week during my lunch hour. I don’t need to practice every day, and I don’t need to set lofty goals. I’ll just learn to play and give it what I can. It’ll be great! The cello, my life-long love and wish! But wait: We already have a piano, and I already know how to play it. Yet, I don’t play it. I’m too busy with other demands and pursuits. I should get back into playing the piano again.

And I do, sometimes. Now and then, every couple of years, when I get excited about the cello, I wind up instead playing the piano for a while.

The Blank Page calls. Those new characters that arrived in my mind last winter, and that I’ve been talking to and living with all these months, will soon come to life on the page. I’ve started to move them from my head to my new planning notebook. I’m outlining and brainstorming. I’m plotting the storyline and sketching the main characters. I’m jotting down lines of dialog. I’m getting very close to that exciting, terrifying, daunting, miraculous day when I will open a new document and write the first word of my next novel on a blank screen

Maybe it’s time to get a cello, too. After all, each of us has but one precious life to live. I’d like to open mine to as many blank pages as possible.

Books: Portals to a Reader's Soul

I am in love with the world’s greatest assassin.

Her name is Celaena Sardothien. Sometimes. She has another identity, too, which I can’t reveal without risking the safety of millions of people. She’s extremely complex, and I met her in my living room.

I met her, you see, in the pages of fiction.

I am reading Heir of Fire by Sarah J. Maas. I did not buy this book, nor did I find it at the library. I borrowed it from my 13-year-old daughter. It’s the third book in the Throne of Glass series. A young adult fantasy series. With witches and kings and portals that go to evil places, and featuring a totally scary, tough, gorgeous, brilliant, lovable assassin (yup) who wears tunics and capes that conceal numerous daggers, blades, and swords. I adore her. And I adore the two men who love her and whom she alternately loves and hates. I am rooting for her to find the wyrdkeys and conquer the evil king and live happily ever after with... Oh, gods, I’m not sure which guy I want her to end up with. Criminy, and as of last night’s reading, it now looks like another guy is on the scene. Yes: Celaena is one hot number!

I am having a blast with this book, and I could not be more surprised. Earlier this year, as advertised, I read Victor Hugo’s gigantic novels The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables. I enjoyed both immensely, and I was delighted to fill in another big hole in my knowledge of literature. Then I moved on to David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, and recently I re-read The Odyssey by Homer before my family’s trip to Greece.

And then something totally unexpected happened. A few weeks ago, after decades of reading projects and reading lists, and after several years of methodically making my way through the classics, the so-called Western canon, I had a moment of reckoning: I know literature. Finally! I’ve finally read enough - and re-read enough - that I feel confident in my knowledge and understanding. As a reader and a writer, I now have a strong base - my own do-it-yourself literary education, a veritable homemade Ph.D.! - to draw from. The journey has been as rewarding as the destination.

For many years, I have been alternating between a classic and something modern: Virginia Woolf, then Barbara Kingsolver; Dante, then Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Starting now, there would be no pattern, no program, no project, no map to guide me. Starting now, there would be just me and a world full of books. Pick one! ANY one!

Hmm.

I was in my daughter’s room asking for the book before I knew what was happening. (The assassin would approve. She tends to go with her gut and sort it out later.)

I opened to the first page of Throne of Glass. In an instant, I entered a whole new world, in more ways than one. I felt something move inside my brain. The edges of my mind expanded to make room for something new. In the salt mines of Endovier, after a year of enslavement, the assassin was freed by the Crowned Prince of Adarlan and his father’s Captain of the Guards and transported to an unknown future. These characters were at once familiar and new. Celaena could have walked off the pages of Shakespeare, and her romantic triangle was the stuff of Jane Austen, yet I had never met anyone quite like her, Dorian, or Chaol.

As I raced through the first book, my daughter was happy and surprised. I was in her world! I was reading her favorite book! She provided excellent support when I ached from a character’s suffering, struggled to decipher the latest intrigue, and got royally pissed off at the wicked king and his minions. She watched me fall in love with the book that she loved. What could be better? I am enjoying her books for the stories, the characters, and my experience of a new genre, and I am also enjoying them for the window into her mind and heart, this new opportunity to connect.

I finished book one. Would I read the next book? There are now six books in this series, and next month the final book will be released. Surely, I don’t need or want to read them all. One was enough. I really liked it, and I loved the new tie to my daughter, but I was ready to move on and get back to my “real” reading.

I tried a regular adult literary novel. My usual stuff. Meh. I tried another one. Nothing clicked. It all seemed so boring.

I asked my daughter for the second book. I devoured it.

I am reading the third book now. On my lunch hour today, I walked to the library and asked to put our names on the list for the new book. The lovely children’s librarian said words to me that just a few weeks ago would have meant nothing. Today, though, in my brand-new reading world, her words made me grin with a delicious sense that I was the winner of an amazing prize that everyone wanted:

“Well, it looks like you and your daughter are first on the list.”

We’re FIRST on the list to get the final installment of the incredible Sarah J. Maas Throne of Glass series when it comes out on October 23rd. Yippee!

Dear readers, the next time you’re stuck and don’t know what to read next, ask your spouse or child, your best friend or favorite co-worker, what his or her favorite book is. Then feel the edges of your mind expand a little as you enter a world that you perhaps never expected to explore. And in that world, you may find two gifts: a new book that you love, and a portal into your beloved’s reading world - a world that is intimate and rich, unique and unversal, and full of new chances to connect.

My husband is into detective novels and thrillers. Oh, boy.

My other daughter loves historical fiction. Holocaust novels, here I come!

I think I’ll call my dad tonight. I have no idea what his favorite book is, but I’m about to find out. After I read it, we will have much to discuss. I can imagine his joy.

And mine.

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