08 June 2013

Writing a biography means tracking changes, from the ground up

Anyone who's ever done serious research will tell you that the digging part is mostly tedious. But the feeling you get when you find a shining nugget makes it all worthwhile. I've got a passel of nuggets after years of work on No Truer Hearts, many of them placed in my hand by Beverly and her friends and relatives. Here's one I stumbled upon while trying to find maps and photos of the area around Wickham Drive, the setting for the book's first chapter. It's an aerial photo taken in 1951, the year Beverly was born. It shows mostly open fields and golf courses in Amherst, northeast of downtown Buffalo. The photo gives me a wonderful window on how this area changed during the course of Beverly's life, from a bucolic space of fields, streams and woods, to an orderly grid of suburban streets and homes.

A current satellite image of the same area illustrates the dramatic changes that development have brought. The story of Wickham Drive is the story of the rise of suburbia, repeated thousands of times around the country. It is the story of the baby boomers growing up with backyard cookouts, go-cart races in the streets, block parties, and sock hops in garages. Beverly's summers on Wickham Drive tell that story through the eyes of a creative and optimistic girl.

29 May 2013

On Beverly's birthday, some new readers of her story

Beverly Eckert comments on documents and articles at her 
dining room table in Stamford, Connecticut while I take notes 
as part of our work on No Truer Hearts. [Photo: Anthony Toth]
Everyone knows how solitary an act writing can be. Three years ago, when my marriage fell apart, solitary turned to aching loneliness. I looked around and realized that I had not a lot of friends around who were writers, members of my tribe. Not a lot of friends period, in fact, since my closest chums were scattered about, far from Arlington, Virginia.

Then, in conversations, meetup.com kept coming up. "It's a great way to meet new people!" I was told. "They have groups for every interest." So I was happy to find a group called the Arlington Writers Meetup Group, and I started to attend its Wednesday evening meetings. At first, I felt anxious and out of place. I'd never been much of a "joiner," plus this group was made up mainly of people writing fiction -- young and old, greenhorns and old hands. I had dabbled in fiction and poetry, but my writing life has centered on journalism and scholarship. But they were all writers, and that was the important thing. They devoted most of their meetings to offering critiques of members' works. And whether the discussion was about an offbeat sci-fi short story or the chapter from a young adult novel, I felt at home. Writers are writers, after all. We believe in the magic of words strung together in just the right way. It felt good to be around people who lived the life and spoke the language and cared about the power of story. I looked forward to the day when I could present my own work, this biography I've been working on, and see whether my attempt at this daunting genre would strike any chords with these discerning readers.

Well, today I find out.

Just over a month ago, I asked if I could submit to the group at the end of May. I was eager to become more of a participant, after many meetings where I just offered the odd word of advice. It helped, too, to have a deadline, so that I would feel an extra push to finish the first draft of the first chapter of this book. As the time for submitting approached, it dawned on me that the day of the critique would be Beverly's birthday: May 29th.

Some people would call this a sort of sign; others, a mere coincidence. I count myself in the second group, but I understand what drives the hearts of the first. We are all hungry beings. Hungry for love, which is epitomized by Beverly's story. And hungry for meaning. When a strange, unlikely concurrence of events pops into our view, it can serve to sate this hunger. It can seem utterly meaningful, fateful, just right. In a world of chaos and confusion and pain, it is the most natural thing for this fragile human heart to seek order, logic, a comforting master plan.

Whatever you may believe, one thing is true: life is a journey, and each of us does our best to make it enjoyable, meaningful, filled with the things we love. A biography is one person's travelogue of that journey. Back in 2004, I asked Beverly if she would allow me to chronicle her journey. When she agreed, it was my first step on a daunting and rewarding undertaking. Putting the first chapter in the hands of the members of my writers group is another important step.

I think it's the perfect way to celebrate the birthday of a woman who was never afraid to take that first step. And the one after.

28 January 2013

The Newtown Family Members Can Take Note of the Successful Activism of 9/11 Family Members

"Speed, urgency and focus" are three tactics the new activists can adopt from the ones employed by Beverly Eckert and the other 9/11 family members, according to a recent article in National Journal online. "Persistence and nerve," are two more. Carie Lemack said, "The most important lesson is never give up." She had lost her mother on 9/11, worked tirelessly on the Family Steering Committee for the 9/11 Commission, and has continued to advocate for a safer America by working as director of the Homeland Security Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Another article on the same site focused on the reflections of Lemack, as well as two other Family Steering Committee members: Mary Fetchet and Kristen Breitweiser. Fetchet, who co-founded, with Beverly, the advocacy and support group Voices of September 11th, went to Newtown in the wake of the shootings to assist family members in dealing with the process of coping and moving forward.