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July 17, 2011

Guest blogger, Ann Napolitano: Helpful Bumps In The Road

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Joshilyn here---and above. I am the google-eyed loon glowing with fan girrrrl "radiance" (that's southern lady talk for sweat, ya'll)  as I meet Ann Napolitano. Ann is holding her book, A GOOD HARD LOOK, which I read in ARC form, and it blew me out of the water. Picked me up and set me down different. I have become a crazed evangelist for it. Some books, you simply have to make everyone you ever loved read them; this is one of those. And Ann-the-person is LOVELY, and she is HERE today, talking about how she came to write so finely, with such understated wit and grace, about our desperate, human mandate to live our finite, God's-blink lives deeply and well. 

I had just finished my junior year of college, and started a summer internship at a New York City literary magazine. I was being paid to read story submissions and was hopeful that they would offer me a full-time position after college. Reading stories for a living—what could be better than that? I remember feeling really pleased while riding the bus to work that first day. I could feel myself standing on the cusp of my future—one that I had chosen and earned—and it felt good.

   When I arrived at the magazine office, however, the good feeling disappeared. There was a strange echo in my head, and I felt hot. I ended up having to force myself through the day that I had been so excited about. I went to bed early that night in an effort to regroup. Tomorrow, I told myself, I will feel normal. But I woke up the following morning with a fever of one hundred and four, barely able to stand. That fever persisted for two weeks, while doctors ran tests and tried to figure out what was wrong. I was eventually diagnosed with the Epstein Barr Virus, an autoimmune disease that wipes out your immune system, (so you catch every cold, virus or infection that walks past you on the street). It is a lengthy illness with no known cure.

   I had to quit my summer internship, obviously. I returned to college in the fall against the doctor’s recommendations—dormitories are not known to be sterile environments—simply because my parents and I agreed that lying on their couch, depressed with no friends and no activity, was not an attractive prospect. I signed up for a half-load of classes, with the understanding that it would take an extra year for me to graduate. My main recollection from that fall is sitting in a chair feeling wan while watching my twenty-year-old friends dance and laugh and basically bounce off the dormitory walls. I felt like a rickety octogenarian; they felt immortal, untouchable. I wanted to scream at them: You’re not! Life can change in an instant! Look what happened to me!

   Screaming would have taken too much energy, though, so I kept quiet. Instead, I focused on a huge tome that my creative writing professor had assigned me, The Habit of Being. The book was a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters, and her voice pulled me in right away. In her letters, the writer was irreverent, hilarious, and insightful. I read about her diagnosis with lupus, and how she gave up a full, happy life in Connecticut to return home to the family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia.  I followed her as she set up a new life—an apparently diminished one—in the company of her fiery, headstrong mother. I read as Flannery came to terms with her changed situation, and decided to focus her limited energy where it would matter most—in her writing. She put aside three hours each morning, and while her beloved peacocks squawked outside her window—she wrote.

   Those letters shifted something inside me, and I found myself sizing up my own situation in a similar manner. I had always loved writing, but I lacked the requisite confidence to declare myself a writer. (Hence the idea of working at a literary magazine—I would surround myself with other people’s words, not my own.) But my illness, and Flannery’s example, offered up a new clarity. I was able to appreciate, in a way my obnoxiously healthy twenty-year-old peers could not, the sheer brevity of life. I felt, with every quivering, exhausted muscle in my body, that everything I’d taken for granted could disappear in an instant. And this gave me a new drive to make each moment meaningful, and to make my life matter.

   My illness disassembled, and then reshaped, my life. From within its foggy walls, I chose my path. I would be a writer. I realized that this was no dress rehearsal; this was my life and I should—at the very least—take a swing at it.

   I was sick for three long years with EBV. If someone had tapped my ill, younger self on the shoulder and told her that this miserable time would have any positive outcome at all, she would have shaken her head with disdain. The truth is that this difficult period essentially made me who I am, and I am now deeply grateful for that particular bump in my road. And to top it all off, Flannery O’Connor showed up over a decade later as the central character in my new novel, A Good Hard Look.

   Of course, I’m not the first person to benefit from some kind of adversity. Tell me, what moment or event changed your life forever?




Ann Napolitano is the author of the novels A Good Hard Look and Within Arm’s Reach.  She received an MFA from New York University; she teaches fiction writing for New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and for Gotham Writers’ Workshop.  She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.



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I had an accident today - yesterday technically. I was in my little garden in Tucson, and my power wheelchair went over the edge of the walkway. I was thrown against the wall. Now I am bruised and cut and swollen, but I am okay. I should be in bed, but I have to write this. I have to write it now. And when I am done, I will have to order your book and everything Flannery O’Connor wrote. And all of Joshilyn’s too, because she was so smart to have you guest blog.

This defining event, now adventure, started in Boston.

The walk I'd taken every day for 10 years gradually got harder to do. I adjusted my walk in small ways, so small that for a long time I didn't notice that I was less able to walk. I would cross the street and walk to Children’s hospital, so I could take the elevator to a higher level and exit near the top of the hill through the Longwood Galleria. How is it I didn’t notice this was a big adjustment? That it was more time consuming, should have been more difficult than walking up the slow rise of Longwood Avenue?

And how is it I thought my problem was only pain? It was getting very difficult to move my legs forward. Why did I think it was just exhaustion? I was tired. Of course I was tired. Who wouldn't be tired? I was on two faculties and writing my dissertation. I had a private practice. And I volunteered. Who wouldn’t be tired and hurting?

I walked a block and a half to Starbucks to meet with a group of students who wanted to start a tradition of having a Hogwarts type banquet (uh-huh) to welcome first-years in the fall. When it was time to leave I had trouble standing and couldn't open the door. Someone opened it for me, and I started back to my office/apartment. I made it as far as the student health center and could not climb the stairs to take the shortcut through to my place. I sat on the short wall outside and called my husband.

We walked together. Slowly. His arm around my waist. Stopping every few feet. Resting on each bench. Leaning on each post. I could not climb the few stairs to the apartment. He helped me sit down and scoot backwards up the stairs.

There we were surrounded by hospitals. And doctors. Doctors I knew. Well. And nurses. And medical students. And ambulances. All kinds of people who would help if I just asked. But I did what I always do when I'm in trouble. I called Auntie-Mom.

Auntie-Mom from Palm Desert: Do you think you might find a doctor?

Me from Boston: Um. Yes. I think so.

Auntie-Mom: Good.

Me: Um. Which one? My neurologist just tells me I weigh too much, and I should exercise more.

Auntie-Mom: Did you tell him you had polio?

Me: Um... no.

Auntie-Mom: You might try that.

Me. OK.

Post Polio Progressive Muscular Atrophy. Good-bye, Boston. Good-bye career. Good-bye being a helper. Hello being a helpee.

Then one day . . . hello being a writer. And smiling happens again.

The road not taken, health edition. What an extraordinary change in the direction of your life, to go from carefree teen, to nearly sedentary, creaky adult. That kind of adversity can't help but change your perspective.

I had two events, neither of which were health-related. The first was when my dad died, when I was 17. I was totally unprepared for losing him, even though he and mother were divorced, and he had been living in the next county. We still saw him frequently (he hung around my mother like a lovesick pup whenever she would allow it), and I frankly took him for granted, I'm ashamed to admit. After he died I never took ANY other relationship for granted. (Which explains why I've met so many of you in person; I tend to want to keep connections that mean a lot to me.)

The second thing that changed my life was my first husband having an affair and leaving me for another woman, when I was 22. My inclination to cherish all relationships, no matter how bad for me, changed a bit then, and I had a very difficult time trusting after that. But that experience also shaped my worldview, and has made me a completely different, and I hope better, person.

Which is how life goes, don't you think? We become what we experience, and how we look at that experience. We have a choice: moan and groan and whine about it, or use it to make ourselves and our lives better somehow. It sounds as though you chose the latter course, Ann. Brava.

Karen, I agree, I do think that our lives (and our selves) are defined not so much by the blows we receive, but by how we respond to those blows. I think that truth is actually empowering - even if we can't control what happens, we can control how we face and handle what happens. And it sounds like you found a way to turn the loss of both your dad and your faith in your husband into a way to mold yourself into the person you want to be. Brava to you, too.

And Reine, goodness, what a blow for you. I'm so sorry you had to go through that. It sounds like you shed your old life and found a new one - maybe a more true one? Thanks so much for sharing your story.

My events involve other people, so they are both too personal to share, and not my place to share. But this is a welcoming forum, which is why there's a group of dedicated commentors still here after...how many years?

Last night I spent an evening with a group of writers, and we discussed Flannery O'Connor. I wonder if she had any idea that her small body of published work would still be discussed and provide inspiration so long after her death? A true form of immortality.

Ann, I'm happy to read of your return to better health. I look forward to reading your book.

Thanks, Ramona. And thanks for commenting. I think Flannery would have been amazed, but pleased, to have provided inspiration to so many.

Thank you for such an amazing and encouraging blog. We all have a tendency to feel sorry for ourselves instead of fighting, and your words are so positive that they are "life-changing" in themselves.

Ann, I can't wait to read your book, both because it sounds great and because Joshilyn recommends it (she's got good street cred here!).
I had an experience similar to yours with mysterious symptoms that wouldn't give way to any conventional medical approach, and were threatening my organs, my life and most certainly sapping my vitality.

Although I was already a writer at the time, I watched my career as a producer evaporate, then gradually found healing with the expertise of a doctor of Chinese medicine. Along with that, I found my next career, in acupuncture and herbal medicine. I'm finding my way back to writing these days, while continuing to practice acupuncture, and I feel incredibly fortunate to not only have both in my life, but also the energy and vision to pursue them.

Flannery O'Connor's letters are almost as good as a transfusion, aren't they?? SO glad you recovered from the EBV and are writing and teaching!

Ah, the twists and turns of life -- and the people along the way who help us find the path. When I graduated with a teaching degree (what I had always wanted to do since kindergarten) in 1972, there were no teaching jobs -- districts were laying off teachers.
I took a secretarial job (as did most female liberal arts grads at the time), choosing Prudential because I liked the woman who would be my real boss (male manager not so relevant day-to-day). When they realized the need for some female (and non-white) Agents, I was invited to become the first woman agent in that office, a very interesting changing of mores and vocabulary.
I did finally find my way back to teaching, and found that many of the sales skills applied quite well to convincing students to love Shakespeare, and convincing parents to help motivate reluctant scholars . . .
Sarcoidosis from the moldy school forced retirement a bit earlier than I had planned, but my students my final year were the best I ever had, a perfect final note! I also had the opportunity to involve some of my students in a Shakespeare project in which ten different schools cooperate, each group doing one tenth of the play -- amazing!
Then, following an injury (at the police station, filing an identity fraud report), my P.T. sent me to take aqua-aerobics -- and now I'm helping to teach it!
All nice coincidences, except I've been told there are No coincidences!

AH, I'm sitting here at the computer, mouth-open, tears in my eyes.

YOu never know, you just--never know. I try to live by that.

Welcome Ann, and know you have changed lives. More and more I long for the TLC in-person festival.

Love to you all, brave and wonderful ones.

I certainly haven't had the totally debilitating health problems that Ann and Reine and Joss have had. However in my fifties I did realize that something was up as I couldn't get through a day's work without taking a two hour nap (refreshing that a corporation would be understanding about that, no?), sometimes I had to pull aside on a drive home to have a nap to continue.

In this case, it was the celiac disease and as long as I don't eat anything with gluten now, I am fine.

Yes, this has shaped my life. I didn't think I could continue to work in a business setting with my iffy fatigue, which started me in my design business. Thank GOD!!!! This is where I've always wanted to be.

Thank you for coming, Ann.

Wow, you guys are lovely. What a great community you have. Holly, I'm so glad you figured out that it was celiac disease.
Laraine - yes! Flannery's letters are transfusion. So honest and wonderful. And I saw a doctor of eastern medicine when I had EBV - the herbs and vitamins and acupuncture helped me a lot in fighting off smaller illnesses. What a great path to follow.
And I like the winding road you've taken, Storyteller Mary. Sounds like an adventure in the best sense of the word.
Heather Graham and Hank, thank you so much for your kind words. I appreciate them.

I'm pretty sure this will sound funny, but I no longer see my disability as disabling. I really see it now as something that caused me to change almost everything I do. And if not everything I do, then how I do everything. If not where and when, then who with and how. And why. Always ask why. Why often gets useful answers. Or new questions. Very helpful new questions that are sometimes more important than the answers. Why not? How? Really? You'e sure? How is that? What else? How helpful might that be?

That last question would have saved me from moving to a "warm climate" and would have found me back home in Marblehead or Salem watching Hank slay dragons, and still discover TLC, reading fiction, Wheelchair Junkies, and writing. And I'd probably meet Brunonia, maybe even figure out how we've crossed paths.

My life changed because of Kafka's THE TRIAL. Made me realize that I didn't have to worry about what people thought of me, that they had no power to judge unless I gave them that power. Very liberating. Years later I gave that thought to one of my characters: "Every time we start thinking we're the center of the universe, the universe tuns around and says with a slightly distracted air, 'I'm sorry. What'd you say your name was again?'" Frees you up to go make a fool of yourself.

How brave you all are, and how inspiring. Reine-I'm glad you are recovering. Definitely a blog to remember when things go wrong, as they seem to do.

Ann, what a wonderful blog. Everybody, how inspiring you are! It's no wonder that everybody who loves this place LOVES this place, including me.

When I had a miscarriage at 34, my need to express my grief about it led me to write poetry, which turned into writing short stories, which led me into writing novels. I have a meaningful and long career because of that loss. There is no gratitude quite as deep and sharp as the kind that grows out of pain, is there?

My favorite of Emily Dickenson's poems seems appropriate today:

After great pain a formal feeling comes--
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

I'm so very glad to "meet" you, Ann, and I'm going to get your book asap.

Reine, that doesn't sound funny at all. Your outlook on life is a powerful one.
And Margaret, how I love that a book changed your life. I LOVE that.

I'm once again reminded that everyone has a story. It's a universal truth, isn't it?

And also, as John Lennon is supposed to have said, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." Profoundly true.

Thank you for the poem, Nancy, and your kind words. I love your line 'There is no gratitude quite as deep and sharp as the kind that grows out of pain, is there?' How true.

"I'm sorry we have to let you go." I was two months into a great job. It didn't work out. I was now unemployed, with a terrible entry on my resume and with bills and children.

"I do think that our lives (and our selves) are defined not so much by the blows we receive, but by how we respond to those blows." is the WORD.

I reclaimed my part time job, getting as many hours as I could. I started sending resumes. I was spending one to four hours a day job hunting. I went on interviews and learned to be rejected. I survived. A second terrible part time job led to a terrible full time job led to where I am today.

Karen: He didn't say them, he sung them.


Reine, I have known too many people who have never let the limitations of their body limit them to use the word handicapped. Well, ok, the whole wheelchair/steps mess might be deal breaker. Keep on swining and posting.

So much inspiration here! Ann, thank you. And Joshilyn and Reine . . .

At age 19 I was hired for a dream job and had my bags packed and ready to go, heading out the door with my mom to drive to the airport, and I got the call that the dream job fell through. I was to have been the nanny for actress Karen Black's child and fly first to LA, and then to South Africa while Karen made a movie. They changed their mind, and I stayed home in Nebraska. My mom, who had not been happy to think of me going to S. Africa was nevertheless outraged that they'd hire me/fire me within 24 hours and said, "You're not supposed to work for an actress. You're supposed to BE an actress."

3 months later I packed myself up, moved to New York and was accepted into NYU's School of the Arts and lived happily ever after.

The lost jobs are the easy lessons to learn. For all of you who've had health challenges, I'm in awe of your courage.

Harley, that is so amazing! And I love your mom. She sounds like Auntie-Mom when she told me, "You didn't get into San Diego State? Apply to Harvard."

Margaret, Kafka . . . oh yes. Kafka.

Nancy P, Emily Dickenson has been a great gift to me over the years. It is difficult to think that you, ". . . have a meaningful and long career because of that loss." But I get it. I really do get it.

Alan, you're wonderful.
And Lil.
Karen, I love you. And oh ok, John Lennon, too.
God, Holly . . . celiac disease . . . you do fantastic work.
All my TLC and HMOH buds. Do you know how much you all mean to me? I wish that were easy to say.

Ann, Thank you again. I hope you will be back here.

Ann, thank you so much for being here today.
Your story as and everyone's stories are truly amazing.
Looking back, I can only attribute my constant luck to the lifelines that have been thrown to me just when it seemed that I needed them. Beginning with my parents, my husband and all along away..and sharing with the lovely folks everyday at TLC I am profoundly grateful!
Being adopted by older parents and then rescued by my DH has made a tremendous difference in my life.

Leaving a rural, small town environment at age 18 with the carnival. So many things a girl that age should have known but I didn't. I learned pretty fast.

My first encounter with drag queens (and gays of any stripe), gypsies, con-men. Or as Cher sang it...gypsies, tramps and thieves.

You want a doctorate in both psychology and sociology in 3 years? That's the place to get it.

What it mostly gave me though, was the true understanding that it didn't really matter what people think about me. As long as I am comfortable in my life, that's all that really counts.

Harley, your story gave me chills. What a great mom.
Alan P., Marie, everyone, it's also interesting to see a theme of doggedness in these comments. None of you gave up. It sucked and you kept trying, which is what Flannery did. It's what we all need to do in order to achieve success of any measure.
And Judith, really, you joined a carnival at 18? How cool, and scary...

the CARNIVAL, Judith? Wow. Wow. I am impressed.

Judith! Wow! I love that!

Margaret: "Years later I gave that thought to one of my characters: "Every time we start thinking we're the center of the universe, the universe tuns around and says with a slightly distracted air, 'I'm sorry. What'd you say your name was again?'" Frees you up to go make a fool of yourself."

Love it!!

Harley, I'm so, so, glad that you weren't nanny to Karen Black's child! So much better to have the career you've had so far and write the books you've written so far, and have the precious children you've had, etc.

Thanks for the conversation today, everyone. I really enjoyed it.

I have a stack of books to read and now I want to add another on top. A Good Hard Look sounds marvelous, especially with Joshilyn's recommendation. I love her work. I have my own phase of horrible experiences, and without going into them here, the ordeal resulted in a novel years later. I spun it into a suspense. And it comes out from Bell Bridge Books in February 2012. Yes, at the time I thought my life was over. For two years I collapsed into myself. Today...can't say I was glad for that phase in my life, but I am pleased I could spin gold out of straw with it.

C. Hope Clark

Yes, Ann, I really did run away with the carnival. My very first job was standing for a knife thrower.

Wow, Judith. Fascinating.

Wow Impressive! Your blog is very informative. However, it is pretty hard task but your post and experience serve and teach me how to handle and make it more simple and manageable. Thanks for the tips… Best regards.

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