What Happens AFTER People Hit Bottom
Today I want to introduce you to a very talented author Reina Lisa Menasche. I met Reina and her very talented adolescent son at the Southern California Writer’s Conference last year. We met and talked, and we could relate to each others’ personal stories around our writing careers. I encouraged her to go indie, and am pleased she’s taken my advice. Without further ado… Here is Reina’s story.
This was the question that inspired my new novel, TWICE BEGUN. As a social worker, my job duties have always required me to go a lot of places to witness and assist the people “at bottom.” For instance, right out of grad school I drove a van full of substance-abusing teenagers to Twelve Step meetings. Although I’m not an addict myself, I felt surprisingly drawn into the experience; touched by the small miracles of hope that rose out of those smoke-filled ritualistic gatherings (“Hi, my name is John and I’m an alcoholic.” “Hi, John.” You get the idea!). Many a grizzled old man, haggard middle-aged woman with few good teeth, and hardened, cynical, withdrawn and wounded young person surprised me by standing up and bravely opening wounds in front of anyone who cared to listen.
To me, these “confessions” sounded, well, familiar. Okay, I didn’t and don’t know what it’s like to be desperately addicted to something that costs money as well as my health, self-respect, and the loyalty and sometimes even love of my own family. I’ve never been homeless (though in this economy just about everyone I know worries about the very real potential for bad luck and financial destitution). I certainly don’t know what it’s like to go to prison. I’ve never been in a gang. Well, I did hang out with a gang of kids in high school who called themselves “The Piddles” because we loitered on the doorstop of Dr. Piddle, a dentist on Main Street, Central Islip, New York—but there were no guns involved, and no fear or terrorizing anybody). In fact I’ve never witnessed or committed violence, and haven’t been treated as subhuman because of my less-than-humane behavior toward myself or others.
In short, I’ve been blessed with a loving family and a good chance at life. I had a fairly sheltered childhood and an adventurous but “normal” adulthood (so far). But…the recovering addicts in these AA and NA meetings seemed to know me anyway. They spoke of pain that was hard to discuss. They revealed their search for meaning, often in the wrong places. They shared universal truths about love and loss and shame. They admitted anger and expressed confusion. They wove dreams from shreds. Most of all, they continued to show up and display their vulnerability. Men cried. Woman talked about their children hating them. Slowly, over time, I found in these stories lessons to take home with me and cherish. These clients were teaching me. Of course I hoped I was teaching them too, but that’s another blog entry. The story I wanted to tell in my novel was how absolutely inspiring the place at the bottom can be—despite the rank and stink of some of its details.
TWICE BEGUN was more directly inspired about five years ago while working in a program with men just out of prison. I was teaching a class on Stress Management when one of the men showed me a book of poetry he had written while “in the pen.” Yes, this tough looking man covered with tattoos had a soft spot eloquently expressed. Just one more example of the same lesson: Don’t pre-judge people or keep them in their categories.
Ironically, the same day, another client asked to show me a song he’d written, a blues song, which he proceeded to sing “a capella.” His voice was stunning, his desire to carve a new life for himself as a singer rather than a gang member even more so.
And so my novel was born.
My thought was: what if the “good guy,” the “perfect guy” in the story, has a thousand hidden dragons—and the “bad guy,” the “burnout guy or loser” is someone to admire and learn from? Choosing Paris Jablonski, Social Worker, as protagonist was just plain fun. Making her eccentric family an echo of my own made me giggle out loud. But creating a romantic relationship between a social worker and a client made me…uncomfortable. No, very uncomfortable. Anyone in the helping professions knows what an ethical no-no that is (for excellent reasons!).
Still, this is fiction. And fiction provides us with the luxury of thinking outside the box, breaking taboos, or playing with fire (speaking of fire, I thought that San Diego’s wildfires would make a fitting background for this plot). In the end, Paris Jablonski chose her own responses to her ethical dilemma. I just wrote it down.
Categorizing my book for selling and marketing purposes turned out to be another thorny dilemma. TWICE BEGUN has love in it, but is it a romance? It has some intense social issues in it, but it is certainly far from any kind of rant. It’s a story about finding comfort and love in unlikely places. It’s about love never quite defining itself. It’s about people transcending their categories, or trying to. It’s about change and hope, and of course about beginning again: a timeless theme, in my opinion.
Why did I decide to publish this work independently? One publisher called the story original and powerful—but worried that it has too much cussing in one of the scenes for a romance novel (for the individuals involved, cussing is realistic, right?). Another publisher just plain came out and said that the story doesn’t fit any particular category, the hero isn’t quite right for a romance, and the novel will thus be tricky to market—but could they see some of my other writing?
So…the book itself is like the story it tells. I chose to try to transcend the existing categories, or create new ones, or just use whatever categories my work happens to fall into very, very carefully.
I’m beginning again, independently, just like Paris Jablonski.
Please check out Reina’s book on Amazon. It is receiving excellent reviews and is one of those books not to be missed. Come support a fellow indie!