Thursday, September 6, 2007

Meet IPPY Award Winning Author Betty Auchard

I became acquainted this summer with IPPY award-winning author, Betty Auchard, as I read her bereavement journey titled, Dancing in my Nightgown: The Rhythms of Widowhood.

Her thought provoking story is packed with wit, tears, and courage as she struggles through the transition to live life after love, yet brings honor to her first love, Denny. I wanted to know more about Betty’s new found writing life, so I caught up with her for a cyber-interview and this is what she had to say.

I must admit this is a long read for most, but if you will stick with it you will fall in love with this author like I did.

Q: Hi Betty, thank you so much for agreeing to an interview with me. Let’s begin by asking how did you get started in writing?
I was not a writer when my husband was alive; I was a retired art teacher. But soon after Denny died, I started scribbling my thoughts on the backs of used envelopes, paper napkins and anything within reach that would take the mark of a pen. I was preoccupied with the strange new feelings and experiences that came with being newly widowed, and I didn’t ever want to forget what it was like. Those notes were written in real time right when things occurred. I never intended to save them in a journal or a folder, but I did put them in safe places like the junk drawer or behind the sugar bowl or in my sock drawer. Where I “stored” them depended on where I was when the notes were written. I have since found most of those odd scraps of paper, and I don’t even remember writing what’s on them.

But one late night, seven and a half weeks after Denny died, I had more to say and wrote my heart out on several pieces of lined notebook paper. It was an emotionally draining experience, but it also felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. During the day I continued to ‘scribble on scraps’ and ‘journal on junk,’ but three months later, I again wrote something very important on several pieces of lined paper. I continued this back and forth pattern of writing about sad and funny things until I abandoned the little notes and started writing all the time on full-sized tablets with my favorite pen. Every day was full of stories of my misadventures, puzzling problems and small triumphs. I was obsessed with writing them all down, and I lived in my nightgown while getting these stories about my new life preserved on paper. At night, I just changed into a fresh nightgown. *I was writing for myself and had no idea that doing so had become my tool for healing. About five months later I learned how to use the computer and ever since then I’ve written stories from scratch using a keyboard; so much easier.

* I soon found out that my method of recording my thoughts was called “free-writing.” It means that no attention is paid to punctuation or editing, and you write the way you would talk. It’s like talking to paper and editing comes later.

Q: In living life differently, it often means taking on new jobs. Do you juggle your writing with a job?
I live alone and juggle writing with ordinary family stuff. I see my children and grandchildren every week for a few days each time. I still live in my large home (2500 sq. feet 2-story 3 full bathrooms, 10 rooms, double garage and large front and back yard to maintain with the help of others) I work out in a water aerobics class 3X a week and attend a few social functions and only one regular club meeting once a month. My calendar used to be too full, and I’ve lightened my obligations so that I can work on a second book, which I do daily. I stay up too late at night to answer email and to write since the daytime is very interrupted by life.

Q: Tell me about what your typical writing day is like?
I count my huge amount of email as writing and I try to answer as much of as possible before noon, but it usually gets interrupted. If I’m working on a new story, I try to continue it while my momentum is good. If I’m NOT working on a new story I’m usually editing old ones with my wonderful editor in Nebraska, Sandi Corbitt-Sears who has worked with me since 1999. We use the Edit Tracking program in MS Word. See Sandi’s website at http://www.writefriend.com In between times I’m organizing my computer files to keep my story notes where they belong. All of this takes time, and I usually accomplish more writing at night than during the day because I’m not interrupted and I can think more clearly. For example, it is now 11: 23 PM.

Q: Do you always use the computer to write or do you use other writing tools?
When an idea strikes me out of the blue, I’ll dash notes on whatever is handy if it takes the mark of a pencil or pen. It always gets transferred to the computer which I only learned to use after my husband died in 1998. Now, I can write from scratch on the computer. And I sit there far too long because when I’m writing, I lose track of time, and when I decided to quit and stand up, I can hardly walk. I’m shocked to look at the clock and realize that I’ve often been writing for three hours and haven’t left my chair. That’s a very bad habit of mine and it’s not at all good for arthritis. What little I had is getting worse because of sitting too long at the computer and typing away endlessly

Q: I can tell you love to write. What inspires or motivates you?
It doesn’t take much to motivate me. I get too many ideas each day and the ones that are meant to make it to paper are the ones that didn’t get away. The stories I lost because I didn’t jot down the idea are the ones I feel are in my compost pile of ideas. They’re getting better as they ferment and may eventually make it onto my note pad and then into the computer.

Q: What advice do you have for new widow writers?
Not to hold anything back. Write honestly the thoughts and feelings that are in your heart. Write freely without editing yourself in any way. If it’s something upsetting or angry that you have to get off your chest, write it down knowing that not one soul is going to read it but you…and then burn it. It’s therapeutic. And write daily if possible. Write about the things that make you laugh for a change, or things that have made you cry; things that blindsided you and things that made you feel inadequate or furious or sad. But keep it balanced by also writing about your memories and your joys. Writing lowers blood pressure…yesiree, that is true.

Q: Keeping a balance is so important. Tell me where do your writing ideas come from?
They come from conversations with people, from movies I watch, from lyrics in a song, from reading of any kind, from ads in the paper especially grocery store ads for Postum which was Denny’s favorite drink. In other words, I’m a walking antenna who can get ideas from the thin air we breathe. Almost anything can be a writing prompt for my memories. My friends are used to saying to people, “Don’t talk to Betty too much or you’ll end up in a story.” It’s true.

Q: How long did it take you to complete your book?
“Dancing in My Nightgown” represents six years of writing about my adventures and misadventures while learning how to live alone and take responsibility for myself. I never had a plan for when it would end, but I knew when the stories had come to an end when I joined online dating services for 14 months. There were so many stories in that experience that I could write a whole book about joining dating services when you’re 72 years old. It was a fun way to end the book since it’s not really an ending but the beginning of something new.

Q: Yes indeed Betty reading about your dating adventures was so much fun. Do you write other things besides widowhood themes?
Oh yes indeedy. I’ve been working on my childhood memoir for eight years but I set it aside to finish the first book. Now I’m back at it. If you check out my column called Betty’s Excellent Adventures at my web site (dancinginmynightgown.com) you’ll find many themes that cause me to write. Usually they’re unique personal experiences in my life.

Q: Can you tell us a funny story about your writing?
It’s not necessarily funny, but it’s something that happens a lot when I write a long letter in the mail program instead of in the Word program. I start out meaning to write a short, succinct letter and it ends up being a story or something that resembles a short thesis about something or other. I’m really clipping along with my heart and soul in this letter when I accidentally hit a wrong key with my right pinkie and the masterpiece disappears forever. When this happened I used to sit paralyzed and unable to keep from beating up my computer. After giving it careful thought and my quiet hysteria subsides, I now fool myself into calmness by saying, “Self, that letter was much too wordy and rambling. Thank God it’s gone and thank God I wrote a first draft and did NOT send it. That letter will be even better tomorrow.” I know that the experience of losing a long letter is not funny at all, but in order to keep from punching the screen, I practice denial and pretend that I meant to do a first draft so I won’t go on and on in the second version like I am right now.

Q: Do you have a favorite children's story?
Yes, several. But I’d rather share one all by itself later. I have endless stories that I write about my own childhood or about my children and grandchildren. I’ll save that for later after getting through with this list for your interview.

Q: Any grandparent advice on helping adult children through grief?
I think mature children or young children of all ages who’ve lost a loved one would best be served in a good grief support group. Our local Hospice program (Hospice of the Valley in San Jose, California) has support groups for adults, for widows and widowers, and for children of all ages. They do a lot of visiting together about what it feels like to lose someone, and they also do a lot of guided art work under the supervision of an art therapist and then they discuss what they were expressing on paper. They also do a lot of writing in those groups.

Q: What do you do when you are not writing?
Before I started writing nine years ago, I was an artist and retired art teacher. I spent a lot of time on my art skills, but I’m not doing that anymore. When I’m not writing I’m working in the garden or reading. I think that writers must read a lot because it motivates us to write and it gives us an opportunity to find out what moves us. When I’m really touched deeply by someone’s writing I first let the thrill go all through me and I read it again to find out what was it that made the writing so powerful. In other words, I analyze the writing. I do the same thing when watching a really good film. I analyze what makes it so good.

Q: Have you published any other writings ?
I haven’t personally published it but others have done that for me. Yes, before my first book was published in 2005 (Dancing in My Nightgown) published by Stephens Press in Las Vegas, my short memoir stories were published in five anthologies, four of them being with Simon & Schuster’s Chocolate for a Woman’s Soul series. Several different writer’s newsletters still publish my stories as well as a monthly magazine called “Today’s Senior.”

Q: Would you like to share anything about yourself or family?
I’ll keep it short. Four adult children who I see frequently, 11 grandchildren which includes three great-grandchildren. My deceased husband was a professor of education here at San Jose State University for 36 years before retiring. He died in July 1998 and that’s when I started writing.

Q: Do you have a favorite place to write, meditate or relax?
I like to write in restaurants and read in bed. I also love good films and watching one is my favorite thing to do. I also love reading in a reclining chair on my back porch that looks out over my lawn, rose garden, five mature trees and a tall hedge around two sides. It’s unbelievably peaceful.

Q: Any advice for writers about promoting their writing?
Oh gosh. There are so many ways to go about this and they all take up half of your life and writing time. But if an author likes an audience, I think the best way to sell a book is to be a speaker and then sell the books after the program. There are endless clubs and organizations that have speakers every month. They usually have no budget for speakers but will allow you to sell books. If a group won’t let me sell books and does not have a budget for a program, I decline the invitation to speak. Speaking to groups for almost five years is the way I sell books.

Q: Do you have another book in your future plans?
Yes, I’ve been working on it off and on for eight years. It’s about my colorful, unusual and eventful childhood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Q: Is here anything else you would like to share with your readers?
Only to write from the heart and do NOT edit as you write. Write the way you talk and be honest. Readers will identify with your work if you’re honest. And to be a story, a piece must engage the reader by having a problem to solve or a conflict that is resolved otherwise it’s not a story. It’s just an episode. An episode is about as interesting as reading the phone book.

Q: Have you won any writing contests or awards?
Yes, Dancing in My Nightgown was a recipient of the 2005 IPPY Finalist Award. IPPY stands for Independent Publisher which is any publisher that produces fewer than 50 books a year. Independent publishers are also called Small Press Publishers. Large Press Publishers are like Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, Time Warner, etc. Read about their annual competition at Independentpublisher.com. There are many, many categories and three awards in each category. Out of 2200 submissions my book was one of about 150 awards given in 2005. Deadline for submissions is April 1, 2008. The cost for entering is, I think, $50.00. But there are many other fine competitions to enter if you go to google and enter something like this: contests for writers, or book competitions. You’ll find more than you’ll want to enter, but it’s very interesting.

Thank you so much Betty for a fun and interesting interview. I appreciate your insight on writing and widowhood. I wish you much success in your writing endeavors.

Betty Auchard's interview was written by Jewel Sample, Award-winning author of Flying Hugs and Kisses (2006), also translated: Besos y abrazos al aire (2006, Spanish edition) and Flying Hugs and Kisses Activity Book (2007)