Friday, June 27, 2014

Be Careful What You Wish For

I’ve written before about a conversation with some friends, where we discussed our willingness to share news of a serious illness. One of us was already open about her health challenges. Another insisted she would share news with her friends. The other two admitted they were unlikely to tell their friends if they were seriously ill, even the ones sitting at the table.

I have several friends who are very open about their health. I don’t think they share that kind of news with everyone. But ours are friendships that are several decades long. We’ve known each other longer than any of our marriages. There’s trust.

But even people who would be uncomfortable sharing their own health news with their closest friends still expect their friends to be honest with them. Yeah, I know, a little hypocritical. They want to know, they insist, so they can help their friend. I guess they don’t believe the concern and caring go both ways. I know I didn’t.

A few months ago, I asked a friend if he’d tell me if he was sick. “I’m not,” he insisted, but agreed that he would tell me if there was a problem (in fact, he wondered why I felt I had to ask).

Not long ago we were having lunch, when late in the conversation he paused, looked at me and said quietly, “I had chest pains for three days straight.” For a moment, I was afraid I might burst into tears right there in the middle of the restaurant. He went on to explain that all the tests were negative, his heart was fine. It was something unrelated and not serious.

Even as he explained, I scolded myself: “You wanted him to tell you, remember?” Yes, I did. But that didn’t mean I was prepared to hear it. What made sense in theory was something very different in practice.

I had a medical test this week that I was nervous about. He was one of the few friends I emailed about it. He responded that he was saying a prayer. The next morning, when I hadn’t given him an update, he emailed again to ask if I was all right. I had the test results – negative – so I could give him an update and thank him for his concern.

But I was embarrassed. I felt like I should’ve toughed it out myself and not told anyone what was going on. And I understood a little of what my two friends may have been thinking that night at dinner.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, quite a few of the people in my books have expressed the same regret: that they were unable to help a friend before they died. Sometimes it couldn’t be helped: the friend was thousands of miles away or died suddenly. Sometimes the friend kept their failing health a secret or refused help. Often the surviving friends were angry at being shut out, and wondered if maybe the friendship wasn’t as strong as they’d assumed.

Second, unless you’re a hypochondriac who enjoys sharing your health woes with the world, you probably don’t want to tell a lot of people what’s going on. Family aside, your closest friends would want to know: to listen, to support, to help, to let you know they love you.

Because what I’m learning more and more every day is that “in sickness and in health” applies to friendships, too.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Share Your Friend Grief Story

Believe it or not, the final two books in the Friend Grief series will be published this fall. I’m looking for additional stories for both books. Do you have a story that will fit one of them?

Workplace grief

The next book is titled Friend Grief in the Workplace: More Than an Empty Cubicle. The stories in it are about people coping with the death of a co-worker who was also a friend. Don’t let the title throw you off, though: I have a pretty broad definition of workplace. There are already stories of friends who worked together at a coffeehouse, a TV studio, a newspaper, a firehouse. Maybe you’re an actor or dancer, a server or bartender, a medical professional or teacher. You see? Any kind of workplace.

Life Changes

The final book in the series is as yet untitled, and is a wrap-up of sorts. It will focus not on the grief itself, but the ways in which people channeled their grief. Some of the people in it have made dramatic life changes, their friend’s death acting as a wake-up call. Some of the people in it decided to carry on their friend’s work or passions. But all have very different lives because of their friends.

Maybe you have a story that fits one of these books. Maybe you know someone who does. Maybe you saw a story on the news that would be a great addition.

If so, please email me ( with a brief description. Deadline: July 15. I will contact you and we can figure out how best to discuss your story (email, Skype, in person, etc.).

And by the way, Friend Grief won’t end when this series ends.

Thanks in advance and stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Friend Grief and "If/Then"

Artwork by Zina Saunders
“He broke your heart, didn’t he?”

I was New York City last month, sitting in the mezzanine at the Sunday matinee of a new musical. Musicals are my ‘thing’; always have been, always will be. Acting, singing, dancing: what’s not to like? The show had been enthusiastically recommended by my daughter, who did not tell me much about the plot (as it turns out, deliberately).

“He broke your heart, didn’t he?”

If/Then, starring the remarkable Idina Menzel opens with the story of Elizabeth (or Beth or Liz, depending on which friend is speaking), newly back in NYC after a disastrous 12 year marriage/exile in Phoenix. The title refers to the theme of the show: choices. She has two invitations: one from an old friend, one from a new friend. Which one she accepts will determine her future. Or will it?

The line comes late in the second act. She’s speaking to her late husband’s best friend, who is explaining how much he missed him.

“He broke your heart, didn’t he?”

We think of broken hearts as the fallout from a failed love affair. We sometimes express grief for a parent or spouse in the same way. But it was the first time I ever heard grief for a friend expressed that way. I was surprised.

And then I thought, “well, why the hell not?”

If you loved your friend – whether or not you actually admitted it to them while they were alive – why wouldn’t you feel that way? You might find yourself shocked at the depth of that heartache, but you shouldn’t be.

I’ve had a couple friends who had serious health scares, but survived. In both cases, when they told me what was going on, I struggled to not fall apart. And it was totally selfish: I let myself wonder “what will I do without them?” Luckily, that’s a question I don’t have to answer right now. But after seeing If/Then, when the time comes, I know how I’ll answer that character’s question:

“Yes, he broke my heart.”

Friday, June 6, 2014

Friend Grief in New York - Part 2

Book #4 in the New Title Showcase
This post is a bit of a departure from normal posts. It’s a look at what Friend Grief – the blog and the books (the brand, if you will) – was doing at Book Expo America.

I’ve attended BEA before (so I wore comfortable shoes and allocated time for standing in the Starbucks line), but this year was different. I had a very specific purpose for being there and the first ever Author Hub gave me the opportunity to take a big step forward.

The Author Hub was a dedicated area for self-published authors. Over the course of three days, we heard speakers address a variety of business topics (marketing, rights, agents, discoverability). We had room to conduct meetings, meet with other authors, promote our books, read from them and meet eager readers.

My plan for this year was to expand my team. I already have an editor, cover designer and formatter. I went to BEA looking for someone to handle publicity and a website designer. I went there to discuss international and translation rights, as well as determine how best to reach out to libraries.

I’ve exhibited at conferences and conventions before, so when people ask me “how did it go?” my answer is as always: “I don’t know yet.” Yes, some deals are struck on the convention floor. But not all business decisions can or should be made that quickly.

In the short term, though, I accomplished enough to be satisfied:

  1. My new book, Friend Grief and the Military: Band of Friends, got exposure in the New Title Showcase and catalog, and I did a brief reading from it in the Author Hub.
  2. I signed with IPR License, which will handle international and translation rights, as well as large print, audio, serialization rights. I may have them handle permissions as well, so if anyone wants to quote from my books, I can direct them to IPR.
  3. I met with two candidates for publicist and am awaiting proposals from them.
  4. I signed with a new program that will curate and promote self-published e-books to libraries.
  5. I spoke on a panel at uPublishU about building your author platform.
  6. I was offered a speaking engagement.
  7. I found several new outlets for discoverability.
  8. And I turned down the opportunity to work with companies that were either not a good fit or sounded iffy.

There are more things in very early stages that I don’t want to jinx, and a few opportunities that I’ve filed away for future reference. I have a lot of follow-up to do: thank you’s, requests for more information, inquiries. But you’ll notice one glaring omission: I didn’t mention publishers.

Unlike some self-published authors, I did not go there to catch the eye of a traditional publisher. I’m happy doing things the way I’m doing them (despite my lack of patience with the process at times).

Hugh Howey in the Author Hub
As much as the internet has revolutionized publishing and marketing, there is simply no substitute for face time. At BEA you have the opportunity to meet people you’ve only known online (like Shirley Showalter and Orna Ross). You have the chance to see how people interact. That’s a big thing for me: watching people in action gives me a sense of how we might work together. All the while I kept in mind what an agent once told me, “It’s harder to say no to someone you’ve met.”

My disappointments with BEA are relatively minor (like noise level in the Hub, which couldn’t be helped). I was so busy I didn’t get to all the exhibits or educational sessions I wanted to attend. My deepest disappointment is being so busy I didn’t realize Benedict Cumberbatch was there until it was too late.

The important thing is that the Friend Grief series now has a higher visibility. More people will be able to learn about the books and find them easily because of my work at BEA.

My thanks go out to Porter Anderson and BEA for putting together the inaugural edition of Author Hub. I look forward to an even better experience next year.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Friend Grief in New York - Part 1

This is the first of two posts this week recapping my experiences in New York City last week. I was primarily there to be part of the Author Hub at Book Expo America (more about that on Friday). But today I want to tell about my first NYC book signing.

Friend Grief and AIDS: Thirty Years of Burying Our Friends grew out of my experience in Chicago’s AIDS community in the late 80s/early 90s. I was a fundraiser, often the only straight person in the room. And though many people asked me why I involved in “that”, I felt a responsibility to do what I could.

An unexpected but remarkable result of writing this book has been meeting men in ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), some of whom were heroes of mine back in the Bad Old Days. I’ve also met many remarkable men and women who are new(er) to the movement. Their knowledge and passion are humbling.

Sunday night I did a reading at Bureau of General Services – Queer Division, a gay and lesbian bookstore on the lower east side of Manhattan. I put out the word, but you know, it’s impossible to predict who will show up.

At Book Expo, we heard a lot about building a street team: readers who are invested in your success and want to help spread the word about your work. I had that kind of group at BGSQD. Ten men – most around my age – engaged in a deeply emotional, and occasionally funny, discussion.

The premise of my book is that friends made all the difference in the AIDS epidemic (they still do). Friends became the family of choice for those who were abandoned by their ‘real’ families.

The men who joined me were living examples of that premise. They were men who had visited dozens of dying friends in the hospital, papered their refrigerators with photos of hundreds of friends who died, got arrested for demonstrating on behalf of those who were discarded by society.

There were tears and smiles as we discussed the long-term, long-repressed grief that is only recently being spoken of in the community. Why? Why now? I don’t think we came up with a definitive answer. Maybe it’s because many of us are at the age where we begin to take stock of our lives, reflect on what we’ve done and how we got here. Maybe it’s because the increase in new infections has triggered flashbacks of demonstrations and memorial services.

Like military veterans, those of us who were around in the 80s and 90s spoke of it only to each other, and even then, not much. Those on the outside weren’t particularly interested. Just like the VFW and Dryhootch function as safe locations for vets to discuss their experiences, BGSQD served a similar function for those who joined in an almost three hour conversation on Sunday night.

I don’t expect every reading to be so memorable. But I’m grateful to BGSQD and everyone who was there. It was the perfect example of what speakers at Book Expo encourage us to do: build a loyal base of readers who identify with you and want to help you succeed.

Awards are nice, but I’d rather build Friend Grief on events like this one. And I hope you all will come along for the ride.

On Friday: how Friend Grief got noticed at Book Expo