Friday, September 28, 2007

Freelance Writer Linda Della Donna’s Griefcase: Helps Others through Grief and Loss

I had the opportunity to meet a prolific freelance writing widow this year when she became curious about my children’s book, Flying Hugs and Kisses. During our correspondence I learned that Linda Della Donna had also learned many lessons about grief and loss and is supporting others with her website, "Griefcase." I was also curious about her writing career and this is what she had to say:

Q: Hi Linda, thank you so much for agreeing to an interview. Let’s get started by learning how did you get started in writing?

I'd have to say it was my 6th grade teacher who gave me my start. One day Sister Mary Ancilla assigned a writing assignment: "Write a composition," she said, "Write a make-believe story."

Up until that day, I was just a kid in a sea of students the teacher didn't notice. That evening, I wrote about a turtle, gave it a name, a job, and an address. I didn't think anything about it at the time, except how much fun it was to pretend I had a friend, yes, I had a lonely childhood, and that I could complete a homework assignment without asking a grownup for help. The next morning, I handed in my assignment and forgot about it.

Imagine my surprise the following week when Sister Ancilla stood in front of the entire class and announced, "Linda! You're a writer." She read my work out loud, singing my praises. I'd have to say that was the beginning of my dream. Though it would be many more years before I answered the call.

I owe a lot to that nun. She instilled in me a little voice with a beat like an Eveready rabbit, drumming nonstop, which happily haunts me each time I pick up a pen to write something. Thanks to Sister Ancilla, when I got to high school, I had the confidence to apply to the school newspaper, become a cub reporter, report events, i.e., proms, basketball, football, hockey games, and gradually work my way to write feature articles, essays, short stories; In 1985, I entered a writing contest simply because a woman dressed in black once told me I was a writer. And, it was that same voice I heard whisper in my ear one evening, the evening shortly after my husband died, giving me permission to write Griefcase. It's fair to say, Sister instilled in me an unshakable writing confidence. Amazing. It can all be traced to a grammar school classroom more than 47 years ago.

Q: Do you juggle your writing with a job?

That's a good question. And it doesn't have a simple answer. For a long time I did juggle my writing with a full time job. Actually, I worked more than 21 years for a state agency, hating every minute of it, dreaming of the day I would one day write full time, never imagining it would happen. It was at age 50-something, I decided to take the plunge. I took a buy-out package, and left, taking online writing classes, attending writing workshops, writing, journaling, writing for local magazines, submitting essays to my local newspaper, working at getting my name out there, writing a YA novel, and memoir. Somehow, once again, life got in the way of my dream, and I was forced back into the work force, temping to support myself and my craft. At the moment, I'm on hiatus, working at my writing craft and my passion, Griefcase. I have every faith, it will all come together.

Q: What is your typical writing day like?

Nothing about writing is typical. Not for me. Sunday evenings, I write a weekly schedule. Or, try to. Monday through Friday, 9-5, are my office hours, with Wednesdays marked as field days. That's the day I run to the post office, scramble to the bank, grocery shop, walk the dog, feed the cat, telephone friends, run to Staples, Office Depot, Home Depot, paint the garage, rearrange the furniture in the living room, vacuum the bedroom, read the newspaper, watch paint dry on the bathroom walls, scrub the toilet bowl, yadda, yadda, yadda. You get the picture. Sunday evenings, I write a plan outlining what it is I must accomplish in my upcoming "typical" writing work week. Does it ever happen that I work 9-5, that I complete my plan? The answer is, hardly. Most days, I work past 5 p.m. almost always, I rise in the middle of the night, turn on a light, scribble some new idea on a scrap of paper, read, and edit something I've rewritten earlier in the day. So much for typical writing work day or work week. Lately, I've begun forcing myself out the door on weekends. I give myself permission to carry anything I don't complete in one week over to the following week, over and over again. Eventually, what must get done, gets done.

Q: What advice do you have for new widow writers?

Oh that's easy. First my sincerest condolences to every new widow out there going through the grief process. And believe me, it is a process. Next, take a step back. Take a deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. Practice this every time you feel overwhelmed. And believe me, you will feel overwhelmed. Then, give yourself permission to cry, to laugh, to mourn, and to grieve any time, any place. There is no right way to mourn, there is no wrong way. There is just your way. And if you feel like crying, for crying out loud, do it. After that, fingerhug your pen. Keep what I lovingly refer to as a joy-nal. Set a clock timer for ten minutes, and write something. Anything your little healing heart wants to write. Go ahead. I dare you.

Q: What inspires or motivates you?

That's a beautiful question and it is my favorite. My late husband, Edward Louis Sclier, motivates me and inspires me. It was Ed who made me promise on his death bed to keep writing. "You have to keep writing," he said. "Do it for me," he said. And Eleanor Roosevelt, a favorite famous widow motivates and inspires me, as does every widow out there. Eleanor said it best, "We must do the things we cannot do."

Q: I love that quote by Eleanor Roosevelt. What favorite grief and loss book have you read?

I've read many books on grief and loss. I recommend 2: Joan Didion, "The Year of Magical Thinking" and "Good Grief," a novel, by Lolly Winston.

Q: Where do your writing ideas come from?

Everywhere. There are two types of writers--the writers who can't figure out what to write about and the writers that got too many ideas to write about. I fall into the latter category. It keeps me awake nights, my office is looking like a Collier brother resides here, and my right arm in a knuckle-to-elbow wrist brace.

Q: I understand you have written a book. How long did it take you to complete your book?

My book is yet to be completed. I make no apologies. It's in the works.

Q: Do you write other things besides widowhood themes?

Not lately. At the moment, it consumes 198% of my time, but I'm working on that, and managing to sandwich in some other stuff. I also write profiles, do interviews, and I am working on a memoir. Recently I started a new blog documenting and reporting on boating and travels in the Long Island Sound.

Q: Can you tell us a funny story about your writing?

Well, I just love writing with a pen name. When I meet someone new, saying that I am a writer isn't the first thing I talk about and rare is it I introduce myself as a writer to new non-writer people I meet up with.

Anyway, I happen to live in a townhouse. There are 94 other townhomes in my community and I have no idea who everyone is. Ten years ago, when I first moved into this community, I discovered a need for a newsletter and set about writing one. I had attended a board meeting where a huge argument had broken out between a board member who no longer resides in the community and a home owner who by now has probably moved out of the area. In any event, I wrote a piece reporting, as factually as possible, about an over-zealous board of directors who served my happy community. Keep in mind, this was a real event that actually occurred at a memorable board meeting best left to the imagination as to what actually transpired, but it did happen. The newsletter went out, and no doubt, it created a buzz. One afternoon, I just happened to be somewhere with my husband (who was alive at the time). We just happened to strike up a conversation with a couple we just happened to meet. Ed and I introduced ourselves, the couple introduced themselves, and what a surprise! We discovered that we were neighbors. The first words out of the other woman's mouth were, "Did you see that newsletter? The one with the article about the board? I hate that writer."

Q: Do you have a favorite children's story?

Yes. My all time favorite children's story is "The Wizard of Oz" by Frank L. Baum. I love the analogies and theme. My favorite line, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." For me, all of life is a journey. It isn't about the yellow brick road, or the end of the rainbow, but the people we meet and the friends we make along the way.

Q: That is so true, life is a journey. Any advice for parents on helping children through grief?

I would recommend to parents of children going through the grief process to seek outside counseling. After that, hug your children, sit with them, let them know you are there for them. Don't force them to "get on with life" or to "get over it." Children's feelings are important. And they need to know you are there for them. Greet them each morning with a smile; feed them, even if it's dry cereal and milk. Sit and eat with them. Be an ear. Reassure them in every way, that you will always be there for them and that you will always love them.

Q: What do you do when you are not writing?

Well, I am happy to report that I have come full circle in my grief process. I have started dating. And recently, I have made a new friend. It only took me 3 years, 4 months, 5 days to do that. But, hey, who's counting? My new friend has a boat and I love going out on it, learning about boating, adventuring the beautiful sites of Long Island Sound, meeting new friends, and snapping pictures for a new blog I created documenting my new adventure. You can learn more about this widow's new adventure at www.enchantressIII.blogspot.com

Q: I will definitely have to check out your new adventure blog. Have you published any of your writing?

Some of my work appears at www.ezinearticles.com, The Journal News, Westchester Parenting, www.lieurancegroup.com. I like to tell readers, just google my name.

Q: Would you like to share anything about yourself or your family?

I am proud parent to my 32 year old son, George, and I adore my made-to-order daughter, his wife, Colleen. I make my home 20 miles north from where the World Trade Center use to be with my small dog, Izzy and his little cat, Tux, and I love that I can say that I have a boyfriend.

Q: Do you have a favorite place to write, meditate or relax?

Grand Central Station is a favorite writing place of mine. I love to people watch, to sit with a notebook and pen, and scribble any thought that pops into my head. The days I can't make it into Manhattan, I visit a local donut shop, coffee shop, train station, park bench, or library and write there. Some days, if the sun is out, I spread a blanket on the sands of Rye Beach, pop a beach umbrella, and listen to waves crash to shore and scribble there.

But, most especially, I love my new office, the one I stripped naked of furniture, it once was my den, plastered and painted the walls, re-carpeted the floor, and decorated with pieces of furniture scarfed from other rooms in my home. It is a real office and I like that I created it. It has a view of the sky, a court yard, Monarch butterflies, robins, bluejays, and chipmunks, and today, two mourning doves squatted on a ledge and watched as I edited this interview. Hmmmm. I also have a grand view of Tux perched atop a gas grill. Whenever he feels he wants to be let back in the house, he peers through the window, blinking two green eyes, and meows. It sets my heart on fire and awakens the muse in me every time.

Q: Any advice for writers about promoting their writing?

Network, network, network. And when a talented, bright, witty, funny, experienced, wonderful, beautiful writer requests an interview, say yes!

Q: What is in your future writing plans?

I have many projects in the works. Highest on the list at this time is work on Griefcase Incorporated, which is paramount. I can't wait to have www.griefcase.org out there for all the world to see. It is my goal to send the message to women and individuals going through the grief process, that we're not alone, to unite us, and to provide a forum where ideas and information can be exchanged. I plan to complete my memoir, Ed Edward Eddy.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with your readers?

A favorite quote of mine: And sometime when I wasn't looking, I got a new life.

Q: Getting a new life has its rewards. Have you won any writing contests or awards?

I'm proud to report that way back in 1986 I won a local writing competition. My true story, "The Year That Christmas Waited" won first prize. A copy of it is matted and framed and hangs proudly on a wall in my new office. Also, in 2003, my flash fiction piece, "Red Soup" placed 2nd in an online writing competition. The news took me off guard, and I recall emailing the person in charge of announcing the competition results, a polite thank you and the question, "Please tell me more than two people entered this contest."

Q: How have you juggled your children's grief and loss needs with your own grief and loss needs?

It's hard to do that juggle thing. All of griefwork is. But as a mother, I realized my children needed to know that I was strong. I sent a message that they were important and that I would always love them and that I would always be here for them. It is important to show by example to be strong, that when we smile, the whole world smiles with us, and when we cry, we cry alone. Being strong demonstrates the legacy to carry on under the worst of conditions, that if I can do it, anybody can, and it raises the bar to carry on no matter what.


Thank you, Jewel, for the honor and privilege of this interview. I look forward to reading more about you and the good work you do.
Best wishes for every continued success.

~Yes indeed our family legacy is what we are making whether we realize it or not, our children and grandchildren will carry a part of us with them. Thank you so much Linda for the wonderful insightful interview. I wish you all the best in your grief work support and writing endeavors.

Linda Della Donna’s interview was written by Jewel Sample, MS
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)

Monday, September 24, 2007

Literacy Charity Helps Kids Connect with More Books

While cruising the cyber-lanes of our Internet world, I came upon a great literacy organization for families with children called The Reading Tub.

The Reading Tub enhances the world of children through finding the best books for them to read. Grown-ups no longer have to spend hours mulling through book lists. They can now spend more time connecting through reading a great story together. The Reading Tub’s book list reliability is not a problem because each book is personally reviewed by one of The Reading Tub helpers.

I was curious about how Terry Doherty came up with the idea to help Kids read more books by reclaiming their book hunting time and if there really is a genuine TUB for reading, so I asked Terry for a cyber-chat. This is what Terry had to say:

J: Hi Terry, thank you so much for agreeing to answer a few questions. My first question is how did you start The Reading Tub?
The Reading Tub® started out as a part-time hobby for a Stay-at-home Mom. I love to read, and when Catherine was born, started sharing that passion with her. I was talking with my sister-in-law about children's books (positives & negatives) and she suggested I start a website for parents and teachers.

I found a do-it-yourself website company in June 2003 and started playing around with ideas. Within a year, it had started to grow, and authors started to find us. So I married my love of books with my passion for literacy and launched The Reading Tub, Inc. as a non-profit.

J: What inspires or motivates you to help families find books?
Oh, that is so hard! I guess what motivates me is charting a path that widens as others join in and ends with leaving this place a little better than I found it. I want kids to know the joy of reading. The statistics are raw and startling … kids aren't prepared to read, and their parents are struggling, too. TV and video games aren't just a problem for the "next" generation … they started the slippery slope with the "last" generation. Trying to find the key to combating that seemingly overpowering draw of "screen" media is very important to me.

J: Tell me how The Reading Tub services help families?
The website has two parts. There is what I call the literacy services side: facts about literacy, information about reading with kids, stats, etc. Our goal is to help kids read, but we need to help parents, too. Some parents find reading easy, but what about the parents who don’t? How can we encourage them to teach their kids to love reading when they don't like to read? We can help with that.

The other part of our site is the book bag: our unique profiles that give parents the details they want about books for kids. We built the site so that it is easy to search for books that match your child's interests and reading level. In addition to general keyword searches (like trains, frogs, princesses), you can use phrases like remedial reading to see if there is a book that matches your needs. When you look at the statistics for literacy at the 4th and 8th grade levels, it is more and more evident that we need to reframe books for that 9-to-12-year-old audience. It used to be mostly boys, but now the literacy levels for girls are starting to decline, too. Being able to find good books that are written for an older child but which fall within the remedial reading category is becoming critical for parents, teachers, and librarians.

J: In having a passion for literacy, do you have a favorite children's story?
My personal, all time favorite book (after the Nancy Drew series) is The Scarlet Pimpernel.

J: Finding the right book can be challenging, what seems to be the most popular themes at The Reading Tub?
The theme depends on the audience. For the 9 to 12 audience, there are lots of writers who want to be the next J. K. Rowlings. We review every book sent to us that fits our criteria (simply, any book for ages 0 to 12); and all of our books are placed with families. Frankly, they are tired of reading fantasy and wanna-be books. They want original material. There are some authors (including first-time authors) who have some incredibly original stuff. But on the norm, fantasies are becoming formulaic.

For the 5 to 9 audience, you can find books on just about everything. One of the things I love – and I admit I'm biased because I have a daughter – is the number of stories with strong, creative, down-to-earth female protagonists in traditional and non-traditional roles. I just read a terrific fantasy about a young girl who becomes a pirate!

J: Sometimes children are faced with unpleasant issues. Do you have some suggestions for helping grieving children?
Books are comfort food for the soul. Sometimes its lyrical words that touch our heart, sometimes it is an incredible illustration or photograph that just lifts us up. Children gain so much by "seeing themselves" in a story. We use picture books to teach them sharing and feelings, why not grief?

Picture books that can help children understand change, life, and loss can be such a precious gift. They may not be able to use words like "grief," but they can feel their heart ache, and they can be afraid to be happy because it seems selfish.

I have read a few books – one about SIDS, several dealing with the loss of a pet, one about a relative with Alzheimer’s, and one about organ donation. I freely admit I was squeamish when I picked up the book and thought about reading them with a child. But, they were incredible. If I were ever "in the moment" of dealing with loss, and at the same time trying to explain it to my daughter, I would want these books to help us both.

J: Any tips for grown-ups on how to get children interested in reading?
I think the most important part is think beyond the book covers. The idea is to present reading as a fun activity. You don't always have to learn something! So …
The next time you're in the grocery store, pick up some boxes or bags and discover them with your child. Or ask your child to locate the red cans in the aisle, then read what they say.
Let your child catch you reading. Whether it's a recipe, a magazine, the newspaper, even a catalog. It's not the content, it's the event.
Then invite your child to read with you. Look at the pictures in that catalog and talk about them.
Make reading a regular habit … and don't get upset if they don't sit still. Just keep reading. They'll either come back or tell you to pick something else. Helping them decide what they like is progress, too.

J: Do you have a favorite place to read, meditate or relax?
I love big, fat chairs that swallow you up, but I also love to read in the Tub.

J: Speaking of tubs, is there really a Reading Tub? If so how is it used?
Unfortunately, I've never gotten a picture of the real Reading Tub. When I started working on a children's book review website, I asked two friends to help because I needed some creative genius. And Eric had it! His mom worked in the library of an elementary school in Vermont … and Voila! We had a name. The reading tub sits in Mrs. Stoddert's Library at an elementary school in Vermont. It is porcelain, painted yellow and white, and outfitted with a pillow. Children select a book, climb into the tub and enjoy their story.

I also loved the name because reading in a tub is one of those "I'm relaxing now" images that creates a positive association with reading.

J: How can someone donate a book for your review?
The first stop for learning about book reviews is the Website. Just fill out the contact form and we'll send you what you need, usually within 48 hours.

All of the books we review are in turn donated to a non-profit working directly with children. This helps us pay it forward, so to speak, and also gets books to kids who need them. Some of the organizations are helping kids with their reading skills; and some are giving books to kids who would not otherwise have them. When I go through the books, I try to match the books to the organizations' preferences or needs

We also facilitate book drives. Some of the organizations we have worked with are listed on our Home page.

J: Do you accept any children's book?
Yes. The Reading Tub, Inc. has a very simple submission policy: if you send us a book for a child (infant to age 12), we will review it. We do not buy books. Donations keep the website operating for free to the public and underwrite our community projects.

I would like to add that we are a LITERACY organization. Our goal is to get kids excited about reading. We love to introduce the world to undiscovered children's books.

J: Inviting children to the adventuresome world of literacy is an undertaking that I applaud your efforts Terry. I would like to leave our readers with one of your favorite quotes. Do you have a favorite "reading" quote?
The easiest – and probably the truest – of my favorites is "I cannot live without books." Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, June 1815.

Thank you so much Terry for telling us about The Reading Tub. I wish you many years of success in helping Kids find that special book.

Terry Doherty interview was written by Jewel Sample, MS (C) 2007
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)