it’s the best story pitch, the best, everyone thinks so

Press releases! As an arts writer for the Times Union, I get a million of them a day. Okay, I’m exaggerating a little. I get 796,321 of them a day, of which I manage to read only 239,547, principally because 431,446 of them get quarantined and classified as spam. And so, inevitably, stuff gets missed. Whenever a publicist asks sheepishly if I mind being approached a second time with a reminder email or a phone call, I reply OH GOD YES PLEASE ALWAYS I BEG OF YOU THANK YOU BLESS YOU. The squeaky wheel gets the grease!, I always add, laughing. They laugh, too. But this is dead serious business, trying to get a journalist’s attention.

Thus it was with unchecked dread, pitched anxiety and no small sense of cosmic ironic payback that I composed a press release pimping myself out for interviews. The reason: A story I told for “The Moth” is being published in a new collection coming in March. Plenty of other (MUCH, MUCH, MUCH BIGGER) names are also included in the collection, including Tig Nataro, Louis CK and John Turturro, and any self-respecting reporter or editor in his or her right mind would naturally seek out an interview with any of those people before ringing up some random regional-arts-writer-cum-suicide-memoirist (AND WHAT A FUN COMBO THAT IS) based in Smalbany, New York.

But what the heck, right? Maybe I could drum up a few more sales for my book (INSERT SHAMELESS LINK TO ‘FIGURING SHIT OUT’ AMAZON PAGE RIGHTY HERE). I mean, maybe not;  the thing was published more than two years ago, which might as well be 2,000 in the literary cosmos. (“Hi, would you like a copy of my recent book? The Emperor Tiberius loved it!”) But, ya know. Squeaky wheel gets the grease.

So here goes. With no further ado, I present my first-ever stab at a press release. (And, yes. I sent it.)

Greetings, journalist! I’m one, too, so I know how this works: The chance of your responding to a cold email hovers somewhere between 2 and 5 percent. The chance of your actually writing a story on the topic being pitched is roughly .08 percent. That said. . .  

 I’m an author and speaker on suicide loss. I’m also one of the 45 folks whose stories for “The Moth Radio Hour” were selected for a new collection coming March 21 from Crown ArchetypeThe Moth Presents All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown. The link: https://themoth.org/ooks/allthesewonders
 
My story, “The Weight of a Ring,” tells of my navigation through widowhood following the 2011 suicide of my husband, author Christopher D Ringwald. If you’re curious, and you have 11 minutes and 11 seconds to spare, it’s right here: https://themoth.org/stories/the-weight-of-a-ring
 
If you have a little more time on your hands (not too much more — it’s short), I’d be happy to send you a copy of my book, Figuring Shit Out: Love, Laughter, Suicide and Survival, released in 2014 by Behler Publications. It tells of the rough year following Chris’s death, and it’s a fast, raw read, full of MAJOR EMOTIONAL OUTBURSTS IN ALL CAPS and plentiful foul language. That link: http://amzn.to/2kuY1qi.
 
And now, to reward you for making it this far, I present several more links: 
 
*My blog, which also features MAJOR EMOTIONAL OUTBURSTS IN ALL CAPS and occasional foul language: figuringshitout.net
 
*My TEDx talk, “You’re Still Here: Living After Suicide,” in which I repeatedly exhale loudly: http://bit.ly/2kvQ294.
 
*An interview with me in Widows & Widowers magazine, in which I discuss the term “shit magnet”: http://bit.ly/2eN7HpB
 
*My author’s bio: http://amzn.to/2k5yMdg
 
*Some links to my current work as an arts writer and columnist for the Times Union in Albany, NY: http://bit.ly/2jh2KXn
 
*Some links from my former life as a Hearst movie critic: http://bit.ly/2k6KgLp
 
*Finally, the Amazon page for my late husband, who wrote authoritative, erudite, poetic books on faith and addiction: http://amzn.to/2jzend3
 
Aaaaaand that’s about it. If you’re interested in my book, just let me know, and I’ll mail or email you one at warp speed. I am also available for interviews, be they short and sweet or long and prolix. I am capable of either.  
 
Thank you for reading my email to the end! We both survived! Good luck clearing the thickets of your inbox, and may you have a lovely day. 
 
Best regards,
 
Amy Biancolli 

 

 

not alone at being alone

prairie pano
I often feel alone. And not just when I’m writing, which is usually, and which must rank as one of the most isolating occupations devised by humankind, right up there with oil-rig roustabout and Byzantine hermit. I can feel alone even when surrounded by people I love, and I’m blessed to have a lot of those. I can be having the bestest time with the wonderfulest friends and family — I can be gabbing, and laughing, and thanking the Lord for all the gifts in my life, fully in the moment and profoundly joyful — and all the while, deep down, a little hidden piece of me feels an awkward disconnect. Feels adrift, insecure, unsure, invalid. Alone.

As a former introvert turned “ambivert,” whatever the heck that means, maybe this is my natural state. Maybe I’m always beating back a sense of isolation. But who isn’t? Who doesn’t feel alone? And wouldn’t it be weird if we didn’t?  Look at us, steering through life in bodies as self-contained and alienating as cars with tinted windows, unable to see behind the windshield and fretting that no one can see us, either. How easy it is to grumble with resentment — nobody understands me! nobody knows me! nobody cares! — and fire off middle fingers into the darkness.

As a person of faith, I believe I came from a Somewhere without boundaries and misunderstandings, where I’m known and know and loved and love with clarity, transparency and ecstatic peace. I believe that I’ll return to that Somewhere someday, and I believe that when I do, I’ll reunite with a fine horde of loved ones who unfortunately arrived well in advance. I also believe I’ll shed any nagging pang of solitude or separation — from them, from God, from creation at large.

You know that pang, whether you believe in a creator or not: It’s that ache you feel when you encounter the sublime. It’s the rift that hurts — the impassable gap that we all yearn to cross and become one, at last, with beauty. We want to crawl inside it. We want to know it, merge with it, be with it, whether it’s a breathtaking vista, a swell of Beethoven or an immortal beloved.

This is the strange pull of our lives, longing for a union we can’t quite achieve. We brush tantalizingly close. We make love and babies, love our babies into adults, say goodbye and squat in our emptied nests. We bury spouses and sisters and parents and friends.

The truth of being human plays out like a lie. We’re called to push ourselves outward, to share ourselves wholly, to embrace without judgement, to know and be known, to love and be loved, to do all of that perfectly, fearlessly, generously, completely, divinely, repeatedly — all while knowing we’re bound to fail. Fail we do. What choice do we have? The game is rigged, right? But then we turn right around and do it again, beating back loneliness the only way possible: by tempting its onset. In an effort to assuage it, we risk more.

Fun paradox.

So here I am, squirreled away in my attic on the last day of 2015, busily isolating myself at my chosen profession, counting my multitudinous blessings and the bounty of love in my wee world. I have so many causes for gratitude, so many beautiful reasons not to feel alone. The fact that I do anyway doesn’t mean I’m wrong; it just means I’m human. Happy New Year from across the abyss.

what’s wrong with upstate

image What’s wrong with upstate? Nothing’s wrong with upstate. I’ve lived in upstate New York for 29 of my 51 years. Four (minus summers) were spent in Clinton, Oneida County. One was spent in Canton, way, wayyy, WAYYYYY up in St. Lawrence County at the Canadian border. A solid 24 years running have been spent here in the the City of Albany, County of Albany, 150 miles north of New York City.

Which leads me to my second question: What’s wrong with “upstate”? I’ll tell you what’s wrong with “upstate.” It’s inexact. Certain downstate media monoliths too frequently use “upstate” to describe any town anywhere north of Westchester. They often do so without using any other clarifying geographical marker — a county, a land form, general compass point — that would A) provide the reader with detailed info, thus assisting comprehension, and B) help define the place in question as, you know, A PLACE. Because, let’s be honest, the word “upstate” does not designate place. It designates non-place, a cartographic negative understood and defined only by what it isn’t, as in: “Not the New York Metropolitan Area.”

I’m realizing, as I write this, that this screed of mine falls into a general category of upstate-downstate kvetching in which I periodically indulge, most recently when I crabbed about the habitual media usage of “Albany” as a synonym for “heinously corrupt state government.” 

But having lived in the Empire State for more than half my life, I am constantly awed by the diversity of its landscape, backstory, people. There are so many mountains to hike, history to unearth, pockets to be discovered, fun to be had. To reduce it to That One Admittedly Awesome Place and then Everything Else diminishes the scope and wonder of all of it. Yes, downstate is down. Upstate is up. But to flip Gertrude Stein on her head, and who knew she was so gymnastic, there’s a lot of here here.  May as well be identify it.

wait, what?

i wrote this? seriously?

no way. way! no way. way!

Yesterday, a large cardboard box weighing somewhere around eight tons dropped on my porch. It was addressed to me, and so, after hiring a crane to move it into my living room, I opened it. And there they were: Dozens of books with the word “shit” in the title (OH NO, THE COLLAPSE OF CIVILIZATION IS AT HAND) and my name under it. This was a surprise. I was like, I wrote a book? And then I was like, I must have written a book, because I know of no one else named Amy Biancolli in this house. And finally I was like, HOLY BANANAS FLAMBE, which, by the way, I have never eaten, I GUESS I WROTE A BOOK.

This happens to me on a regular basis. Not the book-writing; that’s only occurred three times in my life, unless you count that awful roman-a-dreck that I wrote in my mid-twenties and started to use as scrap paper until I confessed this to William Kennedy, whose response was a shocked and horrified OH NO NO NO AMY, DON’T DO THAT, at which point I stopped. I don’t mean I stopped talking to William Kennedy, who is a very nice man in addition to being a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. I mean I stopped using my misbegotten fiction manuscript as scrap and crammed what’s left of it into a drawer somewhere.

No, this is what happens to me on a regular basis: I disconnect from things that I’ve “done” and “accomplished,” perhaps because the whole concept of “doing” and “accomplishing” things is still so foreign to me, even at the age of 51. Especially at the age of 51, at which point any sense of authoring my own life has flown out the proverbial patio doors. You know that epic Talking Heads song, right? “Once in a Lifetime”? The one where David Byrne wobbles his voice ominously: And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile! . . . And you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here?

That’s me. Minus the large automobile. (Instead, You may find yourself behind the wheel of a Japanese compact with a janky, taped-on fender!) I often regard the events and blessings of my life as Things That Just Sort of Happened to Me, forgetting, for a moment, that maybe I might have had something to do with making them happen. (Examples 1-3: my children.) Sometimes, looking around my home, I think, HOLY CRAP! I OWN A HOUSE!, and this remains true almost 21 years after living in it. I see my byline in the Times Union and think, HOLY CRAP! I WRITE FOR A NEWSPAPER!, which, given the nature of the industry, is even more surprising now than it was 32 years ago.

This sense of disconnect — this suspicion that I’m not quite the author of my own life, just an actor who responds to outside agents and forces, ducking stinky tomatoes, juggling large feral cats– is even stronger and stranger in the face of tragedy, bringing out the darkly nutcase surrealism of extreme loss. As in: HOLY CRAP! I’M WEARING BLACK AT MY HUSBAND’S FUNERAL! THIS MAKES ME A WIDOW! (There is no more freakishly disembodying revelation, take it from me.)

So the eight tons of booky-wookys that touched down at my house seem to have been written by me, and they seem poised for publication in a few short weeksThe memoir wasn’t my idea, not really. I only wrote it because my friend Bob wouldn’t leave me alone until I did; it’s HIS fault, NOT mine, understand? In a way he’s as much the author as I am. So maybe when he sees it, he’ll howl, in a Byrne-like fit of existential New Wave noodling: Am I right? Am I wrong? …. My God! What have I done!

fart it out

shameless plug

this, too, is a shameless plug

I was wondering again, the other day, what made me want to be a writer. I often wonder about this. The fact that I have a memoir coming out in a few weeks (SHAMELESS PLUG WITH LINK RIGHTY HERE) might have something to do with this, or it would if I never ever ever otherwise thought about this shit. But the fact is, I think about this shit constantly. As in: WHY do I write for a living? I ask this question because writing is REALLY HARD. And IT REALLY DOESN’T PAY THAT WELL. And THERE REALLY ARE OTHER CAREERS I MIGHT HAVE PURSUED INSTEAD, although I can’t seem to come up with any at the moment. (Ummm, “Star Trek” convention planner? Thumb contortionist? Professional klutz? — “Oh, hey, did I just trip and accidentally shatter your priceless Ming vase? You’re welcome. That’ll be $79.99 plus tax, please. And yes, I take all major credit cards.”)

As a gainfully employed newspaper lass, I am reminded of this zany decision of mine to become a writer every time I fire up a computer and try to piece together a few words in the wild hope of expressing a cogent thought, which SOMETIMES ACTUALLY HAPPENS, although not as often as I’d like and not always the one I intend. A wise and worldly professor of mine, although can’t recall which one (I said wise and worldly, not memorable), once noted that a writer has to expel a whole lot of junk to produce those rarest and most beautiful nuggets of shining literary greatness. And I think this is true. I know this is true, because, as any humble scribe will tell you, those nuggets are a hard time comin’. You think coal wants to turn into diamonds? It hurts.

So when an irked Times Union reader noted, last week, that I had “farted out” a couple of grafs in a hurry, I had to laugh. A) Because he was absolutely correct. And B) Because he had just given me an awesome new way to describe what I do for a living. Yes! I fart shit out! Exactly! Thank you, Mr. Perspicacious Snark-A-Lot! This is not to be confused with figuring shit out, although I’ve been known to fart out plenty of shit in the often laborious process of figuring. But they do not always go side-by-side: one can fart out a stinking verbal nimbus that contains no redeeming and nutritious figured-out content whatsoever. The toxic vapor could kill you. I’m serious. Back away.

But I do it. Of course I do it! What choice do I have! The urge to fart out copy is deeply ingrained within me, emitting painful gases on the verge of sudden and hair-singeing cataclysmic detonation.  Better out than in, my people, at least for me. Anyhow, my father was a writer (ANOTHER SHAMELESS PLUG WITH LINK RIGHTY HERE), not that this is a simple matter of genetic programming, of nature in cahoots with nurture to produce some dynastic journalistic army of clones. (Cue clacking robotic voice: I. Write. Because. My Daddy. Wrote. ZZZZeerrrrrrrrr.) It’s more a matter of need. I need to make sense of this life. I need to peer at it, shove my nose in it, sense its meaning, find some way to comprehend it and channel into something else.

Ultimately the urge to write — any urge to create — is the urge to keep moving, to push outward and upward with our minds while our hindquarters sit tight for hours or years at a stretch. Lovely paradox, that. But it’s all forward motion, this compulsive farting-out of words on a page, and it’s as much an expression of hope as any plans we make or dreams we secretly nurture.

This is why finishing a book (or a play, or a poem, or a sentence) matters less than starting it. It’s the moment of inception, and that first, optimistic waggle of the fingers, that reboots our faith in the future. You could write that book. You see yourself writing that book. Once you sit and compose the opening sentence, you are writing that book: the present indicative takes hold, and you’re on your way. It doesn’t matter which pains drag your down, which worries sag your spirit, which doubts nag and nibble at your confidence. The act of creation pitches us forward. It’s happening, baby. Fart it out. I farted out mine.

i love the smell of email in the evening

At 6:19 p.m. this evening, I hit “send” on the latest manuscript for my upcoming unhinged memoir, complete with a fresh round of edits/fixes/tweaks/trims/adds. I mention this for two reasons. First, because as Chris always said, “There are so few triumphs in this business, you have to celebrate each small victory along the way.”

And second, because I’m reminded that WRITING IS BLASTED HARD. I wonder sometimes why I do it. It’s not as though it’s gets any easier with practice, like whistling, kissing or algebra; au contraire, in some ways it’s gotten harder, as my standards have risen (and my tolerance for dreck has declined). I would compare the anguish involved to pulling out my own teeth one by one with rusty pliers, except that at some point in the last thirty-plus years I would have run out of teeth.

And writing a book: you have to be nuts to do that. Speaking of comparisons, having a baby is one analogy I’ve heard here and there — but as a woman who has endured both processes on three separate occasions, I can confirm that book-writing takes way longer and hurts way worse. Also, no book is anywhere near as cute as a newborn, although it must be said that a book doesn’t puke on you, either.

All the same, I breathed a big, sighing gulp of relief tonight. I wouldn’t say the manuscript is finished, because that’s up to my editor to say — and no manuscript is ever truly done. You don’t finish writing it. You just stop, satisfied that you’ll never be satisfied. Then you drop in a boneless heap next to your bloody keyboard, spent but triumphant.

my missive from graham greene

photo (19)

Shatner never wrote back. The poop.

In the summer of ’89, I was living in Somerville, Mass., that unfairly maligned suburb of Boston. For three years, my sister Lucy and I shared the bottom third of a triple-decker house with a third roommate, and if I were numerologically inclined, I might extrapolate some woozy mystical import from all those threes. Hmm. Weird. But I’m not big on numbers. Words are my bag, and have been since I decided at a stupidly young age that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.

I had no idea what this meant. I knew that my dad, Louis, was a writer, because I’d seen his name on the spine of quite a few books lining our shelves, and because he periodically retreated behind closed doors and made violent pounding noises interrupted by dings. He brutalized typewriters. I do more or less the same with computer keyboards, or so I’m told by colleagues too often forced to pick the shrapnel from their sad and bloodied faces.

In fifth grade, I think it was, I volunteered to help write the script for some school play or other, and I remember nothing about the process other than it yielded utter crap. A year or two later, a venturesome English teacher broke her class into small groups for a similar exercise in playwriting, and once again, I found myself writing utter crap. But at least I remember it; memorable crap always preferable to the bland, nameless and neglected sort that squats in the cobwebs of some dingy corner of the brain.

No, this second attempt at writerly writing was well worth remembering: It was a soap opera. The story began with my character spouting some drippy dialogue before heading offstage to get hit by a car, only to return in a wheelchair — that is, a molded plastic school chair pushed by a classmate. I even bent my legs underneath me to simulate amputation. I’m not shitting you. It was that bad.

From this propitious beginning, my writing career progressed to the woolly English essays and groovy abstract poetry I wrote in my teens. Around then I decided on journalism, and thank God I did, or I might still be writing blank-verse meditations on life and swirling blobs of color. In college I discovered William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene, whose dark/light depictions of God, Catholicism and our combative human nature spoke to my own noirish inclinations and budding spiritual life.

In my mid-20s I was living with Lucy — watching her light spirit fight against the dark of suicidality — and gobbling up the last of Greene’s gripping, unsentimental novels, with their screwed-up protagonists and grayscale overlaps of good and evil. I’d read somewhere that he lived in Antibes, and that he responded to every letter he received. These two pieces of information emboldened me to fire one off. Into one page I crammed my appreciation for all that he gave me, all that I learned, all that I hoped for with my own young ambitions.

I addressed it “Graham Greene, Antibes, France,” and it got there. He wrote back. Finding that envelop in the mailbox outside my apartment remains one of the great postal triumphs of my life, ranking between my acceptance to Hamilton College (which had both a great English department AND a freshly minted women’s varsity soccer team, thank you, Title IX) and that autographed glossy from Gene Kelly (the hottest man ever to dance in high waters). He responded to my fan letter, too. William Shatner didn’t. But I don’t hold that against him. Much.

I cherish my missive from Graham Greene. Whether it pushed and punted me down the road to being a better writer, I don’t know. But over the years I’ve turned to it at moments high and low, focusing intensely on that one line: “I wish you every success with your writing.” Every success. Not just worldly. Not just money in the bank and eyeballs on the page. He also meant creative success, the quiet victory of simply putting a decent sentence together — and then two decent sentences, and then a few decent paragraphs, and then an article, a play, a book.

Because it isn’t so simple; it isn’t so small. The threat of utter crap looms always and everywhere, held at bay by the thrashing of keyboards. And somehow, I still want to be a writer when I grow up.