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Alchemy of a Memoir, Pt. 4: Choosing a Cover

If it’s possible to identify a “hardest thing” about publishing a book—and there are many things that were harder than actually writing the book—I might choose picking the cover. It’s the first thing potential readers see, whether on a screen, in a bookstore, or in the library. It  conveys the genre, the writing style, the book’s personality, and the story  to be discovered. We do choose a book by its cover. No pressure here. This is how it went down.

First step: Input

The She Writes Press cover design team asked for a detailed synopsis of the story from beginning to end  (with spoilers), ten adjectives that describe the book, the main characters and what they look like, the story’s emotional mood, an object or place that captures the themes and tone, the book’s message and how you would like the reader to feel when they read the last page page, photos of book covers you admire . . . Oof!

Second step: Narrowing options

Some weeks later, I received ten possible designs. I opened the file eagerly, interested in what they came up with. Too trite, too white-skinned, not this story, not my mother. Then I got to the ninth one: a ripe, red tomato smashed against a white background, its juice and seeds flying. Now that told the story, and most importantly, got my attention.

I picked four others that were not impossibly wrong and sent them to a few trusted friends and family for opinions. (Which, I learned later, the publisher did not recommend doing.) Family liked Smashing Tomatoes. Everyone else rated it last choice. “Too bloody,” one said; “It was bloody,” my sister said. Some liked the lily white hands reaching for each other. “Too white,” one said. “Too ‘hand of God,'” my sister said.  “Wrong hands,” I said. They were mine and my daughter’s hands. Stock photos don’t include 16100-year-old hands, which I think are amazing but no doubt make many  uncomfortable. Some liked the string bag of tomatoes. Food was definitely a theme in my mother’s and my life together, and there is a tomato story in the book. I could have asked them to start over, but I decided to go with the grocery bag idea.

Third step: Revisions

I use cloth grocery bags; I don’t own a string bag. I needed the cover to be recognizable to my reality—one reason I rejected the two covers that included an elderly woman that was not my mother and the hands that were not our hands. I found a stock photo of a cloth bag of groceries (not just tomatoes) with a hand coming from the top edge, the bag straining with the load, and sent it to the publisher. “Something like this?” I asked. “No place to put the words,” they said. Also, the hand was white, and I really did want to steer clear from making my story exclusive. Caregiving does not have racial bounds.

They sent some options, one with a paper bag at the bottom of the page. I wasn’t crazy about it, but I didn’t like the others. As a new author, I didn’t know how much push they would tolerate, and I was loathe to be the difficult client. I wanted them to like me. I had read that traditional publishers don’t necessarily give authors any input at all, so perhaps I was lucky. I suggested adding chocolate and a bottle of wine, a request they didn’t respond to. They don’t, I supposed, employ actual artists.

Fourth step: Making a decision

I said yes . . . to a paper bag with groceries at the bottom of the page, that I didn’t love. I wanted to love my cover. I asked for a different font for the title; the block letters weren’t doing it for me. They complied.

Fifth step: Living with the decision

And that was it. My book was going out into the world, to be seen across the internet, and hopefully on brick and mortar bookstore shelves, with a baby-blue cover, orangey-red title font, and a bag of groceries. It’s like naming a child. Once you sign the birth certificate, that is their name forever, or until they are old enough to change it. There are no do-overs.

Last step: Learning to love it

It’s been five months now, and the cover has grown on me as I consider it symbolically. The vegetable lode is arranged in a careful balance. One slight tilt of the bag, and they will topple, ripe tomatoes smashing on the floor. And is the loaded bag sinking off the bottom of the page, or is it rising from the depths? You’ll have to read the book and decide for yourself.

When my daughter-in-love was creating art for my book trailer (you can view it here, now it I love!), I asked her to add wine and chocolate to the bag, for my personal use, and to make them clearly not look like a photograph. I didn’t want anyone to confuse it with the real cover. It makes it perfect. Just before the book went to the printer, I made one more plea to the publisher to include wine and chocolate. She said no, it couldn’t be done to match the rest of the image. Yes, it could have, with artist skill and an amazing computer program, it could look indistinguishable. I let it go.

The Beginning

A book is born, with a cover! Coming October 18 (officially)  and available now for preorder wherever books are sold. (See special offer and links here.)

For posterity, here is my working cover (and title) for years, and the cover with wine and chocolate (as featured in the trailer opening). You can view the trailer, which I really love, here).

Alchemy of a Memoir, Pt. 3: Choosing a Title

The title of my blog was “Daughter on Duty,” and I laid bare on the screen how difficult both caring for my mother and living in her home were. I wasn’t shining a very good light on myself, but that was not my point. I was on duty, I was trying to stick with it, and I was tired of an adult lifetime of stuffing my feelings. I didn’t care who thought I was a terrible daughter.

When I dreamed that my story could be a book (read that story here), Christina Baldwin, creator and facilitator of the writing retreat I signed up for my first winter, gave me the title: Mother Lode. I loved the double meaning, the play on words. The load of caregiving brought me to tears on a daily basis, and turning the experience into a vein of gold was the carrot dangling in front of me, compelling me to see it through.

As I worked on the book over the next ten years, including at four alumni writing retreats with Christina and the new and old friends I met there, along with a magical week at Hedgebrook, another women’s writing retreat center on Washington’s Whidbey Island, I kept the title in the header of every page, reminding me of my goal, both the experiential one and the writing one.

As the manuscript took form, moving beyond strung together blog posts, the narrative arc revealed itself. I added the subtitle: Finding Myself in My Mother’s House, and a second subtitle so potential readers would know what the story was: A memoir of caregiving. It was a little unwieldy, and I knew I was getting way ahead of myself, but I needed to envision that this really could happen, that it wasn’t just another of my pipe dreams let go of mid-development. I began writing toward the idea of finding my Self.

She Writes Press accepted the book for publication (read that story here), and I learned they had just started changing titles of their authors’ books. Another case of “killing your darlings,” I supposed, a well-known editing trope, “If you love it too much, it probably needs to go.” I held my breath, waiting to hear from them.

“We like the title,” the publisher wrote, “but we don’t think the subtitle says enough.” The team sent several possibilities.

I really hadn’t wanted to let go of Mother Lode; I was relieved. I supposed it could use a catchier subtitle, but none of the suggestions they sent felt right. I made a list of the themes in the story. I talked to my writing group who threw out ideas. She Writes sent another idea or two, which I rejected. I finally came up with “memoir of a reluctant caregiver” and they accepted it, maybe to get rid of me. I didn’t love it, but it would do.

A day later, “confessions” popped into my head. The publisher liked it a lot, and so did I. We had a title. Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver.

 

Next up: Choosing a Cover

 

It’s the Moments

We do not remember days, we remember moments (Cesare Pavese, Italian writer).

My mother was passionate about her rice bags. Each evening—and afternoon when she began napping in her bed—regardless of the season, she’d microwave-heat one for her feet in spite of wearing socks, one for her knees, and one for her right arm on the window side of the bed. At eighty pounds, she was always cold. At least that’s the reason she gave, or that I assumed.

A few years ago, my daughter-in-law made fancy rice bags for Christmas gifts. The past two winters—Covid winters—I’ve become attached to mine. Yes, the foot of the bed is cold (and I do not wear socks), but it’s warm after about a minute and I move the bag up to hug in my arms. It’s not the cold, it’s the comfort. It’s like my tight-fitting fingerless gloves, the weight of the yoga blanket across my mid-section during savasana, the electric fireplace near my desk in the pre-dawn morning, the heated seat in my car, my hand knit throw across my legs on the sofa in the evening, my cat Lena snuggled close to my legs at night. It’s not about cold. It’s comforting. I don’t think my mother would have articulated that’s what the rice bags were for her, but now I wonder.

How she must have missed my father all those years. Never a pet person, she had nothing after he was gone. I suppose she had gotten used it—alone is not lonely, living with someone who is distant is. And I expect she was more lonely after I arrived on the scene. I find myself wishing I could have laid down beside her in bed, rather than impatiently waiting to get her settled in bed so I could retire to my quarters in the downstairs suite for the evening. I wish I could have provided the intimacy of my presence in a way I had not since I was a child. And now I’m wondering about rice bag comfort.

Notice I say I wish I “could” have, not I wish I “would” have. Subtle difference, but I am not so far removed from the reality of the years with her that I have forgotten what I was and was not capable of. Even had I thought to climb into bed her—had she even wanted me to—I could not have. If I could have, I would have, but we were not emotionally close enough. I did not have enough love. There, I said it.

This is why my memoir does not include the perspective of the look back. It would not be an accurate depiction of the days in the trenches, it would be too easy to change the story. My mother changed the story of the years she cared for her mother . . . but that’s another story. We do the best we can—and even with all the knowing that someday we will look back and grieve, it’s impossible to apply the future to the present. When we are so tired it’s impossible to really understand the surety, even, that some day this parent or this partner will be gone forever.

What we can do, though, is notice the moments: right now I am holding her hand, right now she is saying she loves me, right now I am describing the sunrise to her, right now she is telling me a story of my infancy. Right now there is a moment to cling to. Right now I am her rice bag. When I’m bashing myself for all I did not/could not do, the words I wrote then remind me: there were many moments; I was not a terrible daughter.

The Typewriter and the Blog

My mother’s Remington Rand manual typewriter sits on a cabinet near my desk. She made her living with a typewriter as a young woman, and then as she waited out WWII for her husband of six weeks to return from Europe. The old typewriter represents a connection to my mother that the electric one I learned on did not, and the laptop I use now can’t begin to. I picture her typing dictation at her desk on Air Force bases during World War II, waiting for the war to end and her new husband to return. She tried an electric typewriter in later years, and a word processor that my father learned to use, but the touch on both was too sensitive. And so she stuck with an enormous manual machine that replaced the small one (and is also still in the house). I still hear the clickity clacking as she typed her own letters to the newspaper editor and complaints of grammatical errors to Time magazine for my father. The Remington Rand is the header on my Facebook writer page and is the photo behind the blog link on this website’s home page. It grounds me. It brings her back to me.

I learned to type in a six-week summer course in high school—missing two weeks to go to a Girl Scout event. I typed college papers on an electric Smith Corona with an erase ribbon and, a few years later, my husband’s master’s thesis (twice) on a rented IBM Selectric. When it came time, in the early 1980s, to type his doctoral dissertation, I entered the first draft on a keyboard on campus where it went to a room-sized “computer” in another building. When my family finally got a home computer around 1986, I fell in love with typing for the first time.

The turning point in my writing life was the first writing class I took, in mid-life. It was a six-session adult learning course at a local college. Near the end of the course, the teacher casually mentioned blogging. It was 2010; I had never read anyone’s blog, nor considered that I might have something to say in one. But the comment changed my life. I didn’t have to have a tower room, write books, or aspire to finding a publisher to be a public writer. I almost immediately stopped keeping a hand-written private journal and switched to—hopefully—more inspired writing. When I moved “home,” across the country to care for my mother in my childhood home, I switched from writing about the garden to writing about being a family caregiver. When my mother died, I started another new blog about my adventures in the Pacific Northwest; and I turned my Daughter on Duty blog into a book, Mother Lode: Confessions of a Reluctant Caregiver, typed on a MacBook Air.

A casual mention of blogging. It changed everything.

You can read my very first blog post here.