What Comforts You When Another Year Dies

Aside

For my day job I work as a Director of Public Relations for one of the nation’s largest corporate law firms, a highly demanding position which generally requires me to work 50-60 hours a week.

In that capacity, I got to know Richard Smolev, a partner, who after being diagnosed with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) about five years ago, immediately retired from the firm.

Rather than feeling sorry for himself, he decided to do something he had always aspired to professionally–write novels.  Two of them, Offerings and In Praise of Angels were both published by Chicago’s Academy Press last year. While I only met Richard in person once when my team helped organize a firm book signing for him in honor of Offerings’ publication, likely because he knew that I too was a writer, he and I became “email” friends.

He would send me updates on his book reviews, or when he received a kind note from someone about his work, saying how much it touched him. I receive more than 400 e-mails a day at work, so it’s rare for me to spend much time over each message, but I always took such care with my responses back to him, not wanting to tire him out (he was already living in an assisted living facility by this time and confined to a wheel chair), nor wanting to treat him too gingerly which sometimes happens when those of us who are healthy interact with the chronically ill.  I once expressed to him my frustration and despair at having to invest so much of my time and energy working at the firm, when I really wanted to be working instead on the first draft of my latest novel. He sent me back a short two-sentence reply: “It’s better than starving. Keep at it.”

Keep at it. Indeed, as ill as he was, Richard did keep writing. In late December, I emailed  to congratulate him on an essay of his that appeared in Poets & Writers.  He thanked me and forwarded on a query from an editor of a medical publication who had seen that essay and asked if Richard wanted to write a piece for them about coping with ALS.  He ended his email saying, “Sadly, I had to decline. Not much time left now.”

On New Year’s Day, facing again the difficult task of resuming work on chapter five of my novel after not having had a moment to think about it, let alone write something, for more than two weeks, I procrastinated by writing a list of people and things that I turn to when life felt both fragile and challenging at the same time and realized he too was on the list. I didn’t send it to Richard, though, because with so little time left, why should he have to waste any of it by reading a silly list of my inner thoughts?  And he had never seen any of my writing before, my real writing–neither a story, nor an essay, I didn’t want this one  piece to be his first introduction to my work.  I didn’t want him to think badly of me; I didn’t want to let him down one writer to another.

Still after deliberating about it for several days, I finally did send it to him, my potentially wounded ego notwithstanding, because I wanted him to know how much he had come to mean to me even though we didn’t know each other well.

I sent it to him ten days ago. He responded within hours, saying he enjoyed seeing it, “especially the part about ‘fracking.’  My wife has worked very hard campaigning against fracking in the area where we live,” he said.  I did not hear from him again.

Last night he passed away. So though this may not be up to the usual standards of The Lyon Review, I hope none of you will object to my including this small tribute to him:

What Comforts You When Another Year Dies
To R.S. for teaching me the true meaning of courage

What Makes You Afraid

  1. Global warming
  2. Fundamentalism
  3. Watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo
  4. FOX “News” commentary
  5. Sharks
  6. Snakes
  7. What to do next after typing “Chapter One” on a blank computer screen
  8. Jack-in-the-Boxes
  9. The pointed tip of an umbrella
  10. Tuesday, ten p.m. on any deserted street in America
  11. Falling through a subway grate
  12. A gun

What Makes You Feel Safe

  1. The back of your father’s head as he drives you to ballet class when you are ten
  2. Spooning with your cat
  3. The feel of your husband’s hand when he strokes your hair
  4. Watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  5. Reading a novel in your hammock while eating an apple
  6. Laughing incessantly for no reason with your best friend
  7. Extended child pose in yoga
  8. Walking through the Accademia in Florence
  9. The sound of waves when the tide shushes in
  10. Freshly laundered underwear
  11. Checking your bank balance online and seeing your automated pay check posted
  12. The smell of sunlight

What You View as Essential

  1. Universal healthcare
  2. Forgiveness
  3. Mint chocolate chip ice cream
  4. Friends
  5. AFI’s Top 100 Movies of All Time
  6. Libraries
  7. Hot showers
  8. A liberal arts degree
  9. Protecting the U.S. Bill of Rights
  10. Empathy
  11. The sound of your cat purring
  12. Self-respect

What You Wish Didn’t Exist

  1. Panty hose
  2. Brussels sprouts
  3. Avarice
  4. Malls
  5. Bed bugs
  6. Self-doubt
  7. People who hold grudges
  8. The five-day work week
  9. Chlorofluorocarbons
  10. Hate groups
  11. “Reality” television
  12. Famine

What Inventions Enrich Humanity

  1. The toothbrush
  2. Crayons
  3. French toast
  4. Kissing
  5. Immunizations
  6. Printing press
  7. Blue jeans
  8. Flush toilets
  9. Replacement limbs
  10. The hula hoop
  11. NGOs
  12. Theatre

What Inventions Do Harm

  1. Religion
  2. Fracking
  3. The AK-47
  4. Gerrymandering
  5. Concentration camps
  6. Atomic bomb
  7. Suburbia
  8. GMOs
  9. Fascism
  10. The “G-string”
  11. Asbestos
  12. Money

What Makes You Despair

  1. Deliberate ignorance
  2. Sex trafficking of women and children
  3. Mendacity
  4. US Congress
  5. Cruelty
  6. The smell of rotting raw fish on Grand Street in NYC
  7. Having to wait an entire year to watch the last five episodes of Mad Men
  8. Stories about how Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, or Kim Kardashian represent the new face of feminism
  9. Bullies
  10. Intolerance masquerading as piety
  11. Tweeting
  12. The Koch brothers

What Inspires You

  1. The view of the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset from the B line
  2. Eating fresh pesto at a café overlooking the Mediterranean in Cinque Terre
  3. Meryl Streep
  4. A line of books on display for sale at The Strand in Greenwich Village
  5. Defiance
  6. Making lists
  7. The marble lobby and staircase at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue
  8. Novelist Richard Smolev, who, despite being in the late stages of ALS, asks his wife to tape a pen to his right forefinger and thumb so he can still write each day
  9. Contradictions
  10. The essays of Joan Didion
  11. Olympic athletes
  12. That shiver of pleasure that occurs when you look at words on a page and realize they are yours

Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist and the Managing Editor of The Lyon Review. Visit www.sandisonnenfeld.com for more.

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Novel Excerpt: The Writing Circle

Now In Paperback

Corinne Demas is a professor of English at MHC and a Fiction Editor of The Massachusetts Review. She is the award-winning author of numerous books for children and adults, including two short story collections, four novels, a memoir, Eleven Stories High: Growing up in Stuyvesant Town, 1948—1968, and a collection of poetry, The Donkeys Postpone Gratification. Her new Young Adult novel, Everything I Was, will be published in April. Her children’s books include The Littlest Matryoshka, Saying Goodbye to Lulu, and Always in Trouble.

We gratefully acknowledge Hyperion Books for letting us include this excerpt from Corinne’s novel The Writing Circle which is available in paperback for the first time.

Nancy

It was the day of  testicular cancer. Nancy (a name that no one was given anymore) had laid out the offprints from various medical journals on her desk the night before, but she hadn’t looked at any of them yet. The monthly newsletter she edited had a dozen articles an issue, and she usually spent a day collecting material for each article, and a day reading through it, boiling it down, and writing it up. The newsletter was published under the name of a university medical school, but Nancy was its major author. An editorial board of physicians at the hospital—whose names were used for PR—sometimes suggested subjects for her, but mostly it was she who came up with the topics covered each month. She kept her ear out for what people were worried about, health crises that hit the local news (like the deadly strain of E. coli bacteria that had contaminated baby spinach) and the usual seasonal concerns. She did articles about lower back pain when spring gardening season arrived, articles about skin cancer as summer approached, and articles about frostbite at the start of winter. She farmed out some of the work to freelance writers (she had once been one of them), but she rewrote all the articles herself. The narrative voice she had perfected was professional but jaunty. She sounded like an authority, but her tone was upbeat, even when the article was ultimately informing the reader about some hideous condition that involved suffering, disfigurement, and certain early death.

“We are not in the business of scaring people” is what the physician who had started the newsletter and hired her years before had said. “We’re in the business of informing them and helping them make wise choices about their health.”

The wise choice about testicular cancer, Nancy knew from an article she’d done a year before, was to wear boxers rather than briefs and to be wary of bicycling. But there was now some new information about tumors and heat, and it was time for a follow-up. The word cancer in the headline was a certain draw for readers.

She was making herself a cup of tea when the phone rang. It was Bernard.

Continue reading

Influences

Aside

What writers or books have most impacted you as a person?   Literature can have profound influence on who we are, what we do for a living, how we think or what we care about.  For example, a survey conducted several years ago by the American Bar Association asked its members what made them decide to be a lawyer.  Overwhelmingly, ABA attorneys cited the character of Atticus Finch from Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird for inspiring them to pursue the law. Of course the fact that Gregory Peck played Atticus in the film version might have played a role in the decision too!

For writers, the work of fellow authors, particularly those we encounter when we are first beginning our literary careers can literally shape not only how we write, but what we write about.

To get the discussion started, we asked some of our  editors and contributors to share insights into the writers who most influenced their literary aspirations and why.  We encourage all our readers to join in the discussion as well using the comments form below and participate in all our Talkback/Discussions on Community Forum.