Way back in January of 2018, on my negligible commute, I tuned in to Minneapolis Public Radio for the local angle on NPR’s special series, “Abused and Betrayed.

The conversation was guided by Marianne Combs and focused on the silent epidemic of sexual abuse among people with intellectual disabilities. Combs was joined by NPR correspondent and special-series investigator Joseph Shapiro, sexuality educator Katie Thune, and attorney Patrick Noaker to discuss the Minnesotan context of this national problem and respond to listeners’ phone calls.

The guests’ words were incredibly powerful, but my driveway moment was attributable to the anguish expressed by the parents and caregivers who called in to discuss the abuse sustained by their loved ones with disabilities.

Particularly memorable–and devastating–was the voice of an elderly woman who talked about the exploitation of her adult son. She recounted a situation that occurred years ago, when a powerful man in the community approached her young adult son with a sexual proposition. Her son has a traumatic brain injury: He lives independently, but he has limited cognition and social awareness and can be easy to confuse. The powerful man preyed on this vulnerability, framing his proposition as an arrangement that would help powerful man “relieve stress” and “do his job better.” Her son ultimately agreed, believing his actions were necessary and that he would be paid for them.

A few years later, the man died. When her son learned of the man’s death, he explained to his mom that he would be inheriting money, and why. She was of course shocked and furious, but what followed was even worse: When her son didn’t receive his money, he couldn’t understand why and accused his mother and siblings of stealing it.

The mom’s voice, broken in suffering, compelled me to reach out to Katie Thune to ask about turning her educational curriculum, Sexuality for All Abilities, into a book. The result of our efforts, I am proud to say, is Sexuality for All Abilities: Teaching and Discussing Sexual Health in Special Education, released this week by Routledge, as part of its Eye on Education series.

We created this book to give educators and others the tools and confidence required to teach topics in comprehensive sex education in the context of special education. In it, we draw on the expertise of educators, the experience of teachers, the stories of parents and caregivers, and the words of people with disabilities to inform lessons on healthy relationships, public and private spaces and behaviors, consent, hygiene, and other important topics necessary to living an informed life.

The book is a useful resource in and out of the classroom, but it’s also a contribution to the better civilization we strive to build—a civilization in which we acknowledge a wide range of individuals with varying abilities, and in which we seek to supply the education necessary to live as fully, safely, and with as much autonomy and pleasure as possible.

For first-time nonfiction authors, the passive pressure to “build” an “author platform”  shares some of the urgent-but-empty significance of corporate jargon. What does it mean? Is it really necessary?

Brooke Warner describes it at The Write Life as an “author’s visibility”; Agent Kate McKean describes it as “name recognition”; and Jane Friedman, publishing industry insider, describes it as the “ability to sell books because of who you are and who you can reach.”

An author platform houses the various inputs by which you define yourself as an author and express and communicate your message to potential readers. A platform is  a point of connection (usually several points of connection) between you and the readers who want to know more about you, your expertise, and your various projects. 

For most authors, an author platform is made up of a relevant handful of the following: a website, a Twitter profile, a Facebook page, a newsletter, and podcast appearances, speaking gigs, and writing–or writing adjacent–projects. 

Nonfiction writers should view an author platform as a helpful aid to securing publisher interest. The platform testifies to an author’s ability to produce work that resonates with readers. It also suggests the presence of readers ready to purchase the work. This is important because, as McKean argues, a platform “is there to sell books.” 

Despite this, nonfiction authors can and should begin to build their platform while in book development. You may feel ill-equipped to build a platform before your book is finished, or you may fear that sharing too much of your project will dilute its power. However, creating connections with interested audiences takes effort, and effort takes time. Your audience can provide essential insight into what work resonates and with which audience members. Further, the mere presence of an interested audience can prompt production.

The work of building an author platform may initially feel arduous, but it builds its own momentum. Overlook its jargon-adjacent phrasing, and consider it an instrumental part of the author process.

It’s Earth Day, which means Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, my book with Margaret Klein Salamon, is now available from New Society! But because we’re quarantined in a pandemic while radical pro-gun extremists bully nurses, doctors, and state governments to sacrifice the weak—as if that’s a meaningful solution to the precarious futures of important industries (like publishing)—it’s a muted celebration.

Earth Day was established in 1970 on the presumption that Americans deeply cared about the environmental damage wreaked by industrial development. Bipartisan, cross-generational, and cross-class supporters verified this belief, publicly recognizing our fundamental human reliance on a healthy environment for sustenance.

Although the recognition is often collapsed into a niche interest in  “environmentalism,” it’s an extension of fact: We can’t bear children, raise children, be children, grow into adults, or function as adults without the benefit of clean air, good food, and drinkable water. This is the requirement of every member of our species, whether or not we care about sustaining the planet beyond our mere survival.

Today, care—such a crucial requirement for change—feels like a scarce resource. Callous examples of leadership reinforce the sense of finitude: Trump’s pride in his antipathy seems to inspire those who enjoy participating in a rigid Darwinian contest where every resource is limited. In this game, sacrificing the weak is the only available strategy for defining the strong.

Then, of course, there are those who must attend to so many pressures from so many sides that care can only be parceled out on an as-needed basis. COVID-19 has simply made manifest this pressure: Who can care about anything else when a minimum of 45,000 Americans are dead and 22 million Americans are unemployed?

When care is considered finite—whether because it serves “the strong” or preserves “the weak”—it can only be utilized in extremity.

Yet care is not a limited resource. In Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, Margaret argues that our environment is essential to our practical and spiritual lives, and we must care enough about it to prioritize its preservation. It’s not just a logical decision; it’s also an emotional one. The book guides readers to welcome the pain contingent on caring, because, by welcoming the pain, we expand our capacity to care.

Margaret is a psychologist, and she knows from personal and professional experience that caring can hurt. In fact, to care is rooted in Germanic Old English to sorrow or to grieve. While our desire to avoid pain is natural, it is not possible. And because it limits our ability to feel and thus to empathize, it should not be desirable. Pain is a part of life, sometimes a very big part of life: When we learn not just to withstand that pain but to welcome it, we become truly strong because we become capable of infinite care. 

Spring is not a comfortable season in Minnesota. Yes, the snow melts, the wind gusts, and the rain pelts. But then, the snow rudely returns. The wind persists in gusting. The rain insists on pelting. While some days reach, gloriously, into the 50s, many others stall in the 30s, threatening the goodwill of exhausted citizens.

But if spring isn’t comfortable, it is comforting. When songbirds birds return to the shrubbery, loons to the city lakes, and sunshine to the horizon, it reminds us that coldness will warm, darkness will lighten, and green things will grow.

In my house, spring also signals the return of the most comforting of all childhood tales, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. The story, written by Du Bose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack’s delicate, saturated pictures, wears its generational coziness on its title page. There, the “as told to Jenifer” invokes a beloved family tale handed down from father to daughter (and, according to Heyward’s biography, from mother to son).

Although Heyward may be better known for his 1925 novel Porgy, upon which the Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess, is based, he published The Country Bunny in 1939. It’s a story about Cottontail, a clever bunny “with a brown skin and a little cotton ball of a tail,” who wanted to be one of the five Easter Bunnies who brought eggs to children on Easter. 

But “the big white bunnies who lived in fine houses and the Jack Rabbits with long legs who can run so fast” laughed at her ambition. They laughed even harder when Cottontail, “much to her surprise,” found herself with a husband and 21 babies to take care of: “Only a country rabbit would go and have all those babies,” they said.

Alone, Cottontail put aside her Easter-Bunny dream and tended to her babies. As time passed, and her bunnies grew, she taught them to sweep, clean, cook, wash, sew, mend, sing, dance, garden, and create. When she heard that one of the Easter Bunnies had become too slow and that Old Grandfather would pick a new Easter Bunny to take his place, Cottontail decided to bring her children to the Palace of Easter Eggs to watch the festivities.

Now, Cottontail’s story is not only about the softly feminist fulfillment of a dream. It’s also, if I may, a story about letting go of a dream so as to return to it with a more experienced, more nuanced perspective. Cottontail becomes an Easter Bunny, but not because of a steadfast, single-minded commitment. She becomes an Easter Bunny because her experiences fostered the requisite Easter-Bunny qualities of wisdom, kindness, swiftness, cleverness, and heart.

The Country Bunny extends hope toward a future that valorizes not just heart but a “loving heart for children.” Cottontail’s bravery comes from her experience attending-to, making her a hero and thus temporary keeper of the little gold shoes.

The book, it must be said, is a bedtime investment—a concise Mo Willems it is not—but its story about a timely triumph of kindness and heart is a tonic amidst the cruelty of These Times, making every moment spent with it a true comfort.

Golden Shoes

This week, poet Dorianne Laux’s poem “For the Sake of Strangers” has repeatedly found its way to my inbox. And for good reason: It reminds us that we are tethered to one another, even when (especially when) we are isolated and alone:

***

No matter what the grief, its weight,

we are obliged to carry it.

We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength

that pushes us through

crowds.

And then the young boy gives me directions

so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,

waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.

All day it continues, each kindness

reaching toward another—a stranger

singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees

offering their blossoms, a child

who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.

Somehow they always find me, seem even to be waiting,

determined to keep me

from myself, from the thing that calls to me

as it must have once called to them—

this temptation to step off the edge

and fall weightless, away from the world.

***

In the context of a pandemic, the poem takes on the weight of melancholic nostalgia. Crowds are a distant memory. And who is this kind woman, blithely touching the handle of a communal door?

While we wait for the thronging masses with their careless touches to return, we find other ways to keep ourselves from ourselves, to stop ourselves from falling away from the world. Prestige (also trash) TV can help, as can Instagram baking tutorials, at-home yoga apps, and home-streaming movies.

But, of course, books offer the most direct route to sustained-but-restrained escape. Poetry like Andrea Cohen’s Nightshade or Steve Healey’s Safe Houses I Have Known dislocate language, asking us to attend to distilled moments in ways we can’t with Twitter. Short story collections, like Lauren Holmes’s Barbara the Slut or Bryan Washington’s Lot, expand Facebook’s promise to offer us an evocative peek inside discrete but connected lives. Easy-reading YA, like Amy Spalding’s We Used to Be Friends, extend us comfort through the familiar intensity of first loves and losses. And, of course, the classics and big books, like Middlemarch or Infinite Jest (god help us), open up an escape hatch onto worlds so comprehensive they can feel like a trap.

I have a two-foot stack of to-be-read books on my bedside table, but pandemic reading seems to call for something special. I’ve ordered Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s lauded first book in her recently completed Thomas-Cromwell trilogy, and My Brilliant Friend, the first book of Elena Ferrante’s beloved Neapolitan quartet.

Starting a series can be as intimidating as starting a heralded classic or a formidably big book. In regular life, I don’t like feeling obligated to read on (and on) to find out what happens. But from my more narrow pandemic perspective, the promise of a future unfolding feels more like a (reading) exercise in hope.

Everyone’s talking about bookshop. Errr, now that everyone is almost done talking about American Dirt, the limits of representation, the perils of mis-marketing, and the lost opportunities of seven-figure advances, everyone is talking about Bookshop.

What’s Bookshop?

It’s the Amazon alternative founded by Andy Hunter (of Electric Literature, LitHub, and Catapult fame) to sustain and foster independent bookstores and their dedicated reader communities.

The Bookshop model offers readers Amazon-like convenience, but it disburses proceeds to independent booksellers and gives a 10-percent share of book sales to affiliate linkers—whether they’re independent bookstores, magazines, bloggers, or other members of the book-loving public.

Of course, Amazon is cheaper. It’s cheaper because it only offers affiliate linkers a 4.5-percent share of book sales and because, compared to Bookshop’s on-average 8-percent discount, Amazon book discounts are much, much deeper. In fact, its unsustainable discounts are a major reason Amazon drives competitors like local and independent bookstores out of business.

So, in this as in so many other cases, “cheaper” comes at a price. Committed to books? To weird and wonderful bookstores? Help them (and readers!) thrive by buying from and linking to Bookshop. Its transparent effort to support local independent bookstores may be a more expensive alternative, but anyone interested in and committed to fostering a lively and long-lived cultural conversation will benefit from its marketplace.

A map of twin cities bookstores by illustrator Kevin Cannon

A map of twin cities bookstores by illustrator Kevin Cannon

The weekend is coming! The weekend is coming! And while that news alone is a source of joy and wonder, it’s doubly so this weekend because Saturday is Independent Bookstore Day!

Where will you visit and what will you buy? If you’re in the Minneapolis area, you might try The Wild Rumpus for a belated copy of The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, or maybe the Red Balloon in anticipation of the newest Wings of Fire? How about Birchbark for Killers of the Flower Moon, or Once Upon a Crime for the creepy classic, Rebecca? Or maybe you’ll head to Magers and Quinn for a newer classic, The Great Believers?

Or maybe you’re working, or digging in the (muddy [snowy?]) dirt, or riding the bleachers at a child’s doubleheader. If you can’t get out and about in your neighborhood, there’s always the internet’s busy streets. Specifically, you might try Belt Publishing for the Minneapolis-superfan’s Under Purple Skies.

Buying independent is an excellent way to make manifest your belief in the restorative value of books and the invigorating power of independent bookstores.

It’s true that books are expensive and can be borrowed—for free—from the library (libraries!). But good books are forever: You read them once or twice or more. You read them aloud to those you love. You lend them to those you trust. You gush over them with acquaintances and hate on them with strangers. You revisit the phrases, the characters, the scenes, the stories—and the images and feelings they invoke—over the years of your life. And good books make those years so much better.

And bad books? They’re the worst. But even bad books deserve a second life in more appreciative hands. So sell back A Little Life and The Flamethrowers to the used bookstore, and try to remember that the books we hate also give us something to think over and question, and that’s a lot.

Find your Minnesota-specific guide to Independent Bookstore Day at Rain Taxi or Twin Cities Geek. And reserve Saturday for spending money on the booksellers, bookstores, book publishers, book printers, and, of course, the authors that entertain, educate, delight, and, sometimes, astound us.

​Well, that’s pretty rare, actually. Although a foreword, a preface, an introduction, and an afterword are all framing elements, they are only sometimes used (and only sometimes read). So what are the differences between a preface, a foreword, and an intro, and what is the point of an afterword? How do you know what your book needs, and when should you start to write it?
A foreword:

  • Is not written by the author
  • Is written by an expert in the field
  • Is about the book’s larger subject and lends credibility to the book and the author

A foreword is an asset to most nonfiction books. Luckily, many nonfiction writers have a network of informed experts (a few of whom probably informed the writer’s source material) who can speak fluently about the writer’s subject matter (and sometimes the writer, too). When to solicit the foreword? Brainstorm possible writers early in the book development process (and when you ask, be sure not to waste anyone’s time).

A preface:

  • Is written by the author
  • Is only peripherally about the book’s subject
  • Is often written to explain how and why an author came to write their book

A preface is often an asset to a nonfiction book. It is pretextual in the sense that it isn’t considered of a piece with the content. It can therefore act as a space where authors, freer to appeal directly to their readers, use candid language to make the book’s content more meaningful and the reading experience more intimate. When to write the preface? Write it when you’re done. In some ways, the preface is a preparatory reflection, and it’s often more efficient to write it while looking back.

An introduction:

  • Is also written by the author
  • Is typically about the book’s subject
  • Is used to supply extra material that augments the book’s subject

An introduction can also be an asset to a nonfiction book. Unlike a preface, an introduction is considered a part of the book. It’s thus a good place for background material that is crucial to consider but that doesn’t fit the book’s narrative arc. When to write an introduction? Write it when you’re done. It’s not always easy to identify whether or not a book needs an introduction. Once the manuscript is complete, it’s easier to determine what has been left out. If the reader will benefit from contextual information, an introduction will help.

An afterword:

  • Is not typically written by the author
  • Is very like a foreword
  • Is used to guide the broader discussion provoked by the book

An afterword is a bit rarer than the other textual frames. Why? Who knows, but maybe out of an assumption that readers will skip out on a book’s last pages? Whatever the reason, an afterword can offer an unexpected and powerful lens through which to view nonfiction (or fiction!) work. When to solicit an afterword? Probably after your book has been released, reprinted, and widely respected. The best afterword discusses a book’s lasting impact on the cultural conversation to which it continues to contribute.

Picture

As part of the Do-More/Do-Less banner I’ve unfurled for 2019, I’m revisiting Jane Friedman’s book The Business of Being A Writer. Friedman, whose Twitter bio declares that she knows “far too much about the publishing industry,” is the cofounder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the call-is-coming-from-inside-the-house newsletter about publishing.

​​Her book gives a comprehensive overview of professional writing and pragmatic, utterly helpful advice. While it’s an ideal reference for anyone dipping a toe into the world of professional writing, the insight and advice ripples outward to other professionals, too.
 
Take, for instance, Friedman’s injunction to avoid wasting someone’s time. For writers, a pitch to an unresearched editor, to an ill-chosen agent, or to an unsuitable publication is not a hail-mary strategy—it’s a waste of the reader’s time and a waste of the writer’s time.
 
This is the case for all types of pitch-makers. You might be pitching a report to shareholders, a book to an agent, an argument to an audience, a grant to a grantor, or a professional background to an interviewer. In each case, your aspiration should be for your audience to consider the time they spend with you and your work to be worthwhile.
 
You will gain their appreciation by knowing that audience not as an indistinct bulk but as a single person. Recognizing your audience as a single (and actual) person makes it easier to undertake the work of understanding their professional background, needs, and aspirations. Only then can you determine if your work (or your speech or your grant) really is a good fit. Can you give this person something they need? If yes, then you can succinctly and persuasively explain what you have to offer.
 
This type of reconnaissance isn’t as fuzzy as it sounds. You don’t have to divine motivations (though you may want to). You simply have to turn to Google to trace your audience’s past work and current efforts. The time you spend—no matter your pitch, no matter your audience—will always be well-spent.