Fairfield’s Randi Oster (right) has written a 105,000-word memoir, Questioning Protocol. It tells the story of her experience acting as her teenage son Gary’s patient advocate during a difficult period of his battle with Crohn’s disease, a stretch in which he was hospitalized twice. In addition, it offers readers tools to deal more effectively with their own and their loved ones’ critical health-care issues.
A former workshop colleague of mine, Randi was highly energetic and organized, and a natural storyteller. She also was, as our Writers’ Workshop of Fairfield leader Carol Dannhauser liked to put it, a rocket scientist. Literally. What Randi was not in those early workshops, by either natural-born gift or education or profession, was a writer.
The story of the making of Randi’s memoir is also the story of the making of a writer.
Parroting Carol’s oft-repeated verbal reminder to her from our workshop days, Randi says with a laugh, “ ‘It’s comma, quote.’ I never learned this in school. I am a product of the ’70s Bronx school system. To escape a mediocre education, I went to the Bronx High School of Science, where I avoided writing and focused on math and science. Then in college, I studied electrical engineering. I barely wrote papers, much less anything with dialogue.”
Randi went to work at General Electric, rising to key roles in leading teams that designed such technological marvels as sensors for the Stealth fighter. Eventually, she joined the executive ranks, where she received leadership training in GE’s legendary Six Sigma quality control program. After she left GE, she joined Carol’s exercise-based workshop, then moved on to another that focused on memoir.
Despite her late start in writing, Randi has always done something even longtime writers often cannot bring themselves to do: She submits her work for possible publication. One successful example was a local contest. In 2011, her piece “Countdown to Chili” was accepted for and included in the Writers’ Room of the Fairfield Public Library’s anthology Around the Table: Food Memories of Fairfield. An excerpt from her new memoir recently was published in a health-industry magazine, another is being reviewed for possible publication in one of the country’s most prestigious medical journals, and the manuscript has attracted serious attention from literary agents.
Here are some of the writing lessons Randi learned in the making of her memoir:
Composing: Get editing help. After taking Carol’s memoir workshop, Randi decided to devote herself to writing the book, making it a fulltime job with a goal of producing 10 pages a week. To help her, she hired Carol to spend one hour a week editing her newest copy. Randi is not the only member of our former workshop who recommends an editing approach. Gabi Coatsworth, a Fairfield-based award-winning essayist and short story writer, rarely submits a piece of writing before having a professional editor critique it. [See “Why hire an editor? Here’s why”; FWB, March 1, 2011]
Early on, both the writing and the editing went slowly. “One time I wrote a sentence that took me 45 minutes,” Randi said. “Carol, reading along, said, ‘Oh, this is good.’ Then she just went on to the next sentence. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? That was 45 minutes.’ ”
Nevertheless, instead of 10 pages, or the more realistic seven that Carol had set as a standard, the first week they struggled to review two. At the end of their 60 minutes, Randi would go home with Carol’s red-penciled pages and “input the changes. Every single week. I didn’t let them pile up. I didn’t say, Oh, I’ll do that in three weeks.
“A lot of it wasn’t copy-editing,” Randi continues. “It was thought editing. She would have a note: Need to add more about Blah. That takes time, to add more about Blah. That wasn’t edited. That was material missing. I would probably spend Monday and Tuesday just updating what needed to get done. And then I would spend the last three days of the week trying to come up with the new stuff. I was making the same mistakes over and over.”
Such as? “I learned to stop ‘realizing’ for the reader. Now, in the past I would have written, ‘I learned pretty quickly to stop “realizing” for the reader.’ ” And to eliminate those –ly adverbs.
Voice: Be true to yourself. Randi fell into the trap that ensnares many writers who read stories similar to their own between writing sessions. “I would like the style of someone else’s voice,” she says. “Then I would write my story with that other voice. Carol would look at my copy and go, ‘It’s crap.’ I’d say, ‘What do you mean? I’m being literary.’ I learned that when I was authentic and real, the pages flew so much faster.”
But being authentic and real has its drawbacks for the memoirist. “It meant being brutally honest,” Randi says. “So I don’t always come out looking good. Sometimes I’m a bitch. When you’re writing, it’s hard to make yourself look bad. But the truth is, that’s what I needed to do. It was easy to find fault in everyone else. But the reader sees through that. You must not be afraid of showing the skeletons in your own closet. That’s hard. I got used to writing the truth, but now I realize that people are going to read it. Now the game isn’t fair. Someone else will know so much more about me than I’ll ever know about them.”
There’s an ultimate payoff, though: “People can relate, because now I’m not some figment of perfection. I’m a real person.”
Language: Think of your reader. Despite years as an electrical engineer and a GE employee schooled in the argot and acronyms of Six Sigma, Randi’s language in the book is a reader’s language. “Technical. Detailed. Boring,” she says in a singsong voice, “is what I avoided.” Yet her Six Sigma training plays an important role in the book, especially in the climax, where she shows how a focus on quality can make a difference and she gives readers tools they can use themselves in a real-life setting.
One method she used to make the complex simple was to draw analogies. For example, when she describes the tribal divisions of the medical personnel in the hospital cafeteria, she equates them to the different-colored flamingoes and other birds she had seen standing apart from one another at the San Diego Zoo. And to convey the personalities of the members of her family and other key players, she compares them to the characteristics of the Hundred Acre Wood storybook residents in Benjamin Hoff’s 1982 bestseller, The Tao of Pooh, derived from the A. A. Milne classic.
Structure: Tell a story. To be successful, Randi knew, her memoir needed to include the key elements of narrative storytelling that one would find in fiction.
An inciting incident that defined Randi’s personal conflict—and triggered her thorough note-taking that she referred to while writing the book—arose when a doctor prescribed Gary a medication without first telling Randi, which she had previously told the physician she wanted him to do. Three weeks after that incident, Gary was back in the hospital.
“If we’re talking about story arc,” she says, “I was blessed, in a weird way, that my son had a disease and that we got him through [a crisis] in a positive way. I knew there would have to be some growth in the main character, who is me, and that there should be an ‘aha’ moment.”
That came at the end of a darkest-hour turning point, a harrowing high-speed, 3 a.m. ambulance ride between two hospitals during a thunder-and-lightning downpour, complete with a demonic-looking EMT at the wheel and an eerie, heavy-metal soundtrack blasting from the dashboard radio. When the man changed the station and Mariah Carey’s “Hero” came on—the song was No. 1 on the charts the day Gary was born—Randi found peace in its message, which she defines as: “You’ll find the strength from within.”
She says that, “In memoir, unlike fiction, you have to hope that these moments happen, because you can’t make it up. But those are real things that happened.” What she leaves unsaid is that, as a writer, you also have to be able to recognize such moments and their proper places in your story structure.
Message: Incorporate a broader theme. Randi views her book as more than just a personal story of “how I navigated the health-care system.” It is, she says, a toolkit for “the 141 million people with chronic diseases who are constantly going in and out of the system.” Rather than blaming doctors and other medical personnel, she uses her quality-control training to suggest ways to “improve the performance and the process, so everyone does better. There were very clear tools that I used. . . .There were techniques that enabled my son to end up not needing medication and take a nutritional approach. All those tricks are in the book. And those skills and tips are easily learned and transferred. My goal, for every page and a half, was for readers to have learned something they can use.”
Reviewing & Revising: You are not done yet. Upon finally finishing her memoir, Randi hauled her edited stack of pages north to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Every day, she’d go to a different tourist landmark—Norman Rockwell’s veranda, Edith Wharton’s garden, Mt. Greylock—and sit down, pencil in hand, to read the book from start to finish. At night in her B&B room, she would type in the changes on her computer.
Some of those alterations involved cutting. “There were times when I would take four sentences to make one thought,” she says. “To go from four sentences to one sentence makes it powerful. It gets faster and smarter.” At least 25,000 words ended up on the floor.
More illuminating to Randi than finding places to cut “was how I was able to tie things at the end back to the beginning. Because I could see it all, I could see where I could build up a more of the story. So now it has more of a flow.”
When she returned home, she went through every single page of the book a final time.
Even now, though, Randi may have more to do. After reading the final manuscript, a friend asked her, “What happened at the end? I feel like your pen ran out of ink. I wanted about 15 more pages.”
Randi expects that the book’s eventual publisher may say the same. But after all her hard work, she says she told her friend, “I couldn’t take it any more.” Yes, even she had run out of writing energy.
Final Lessons: Write and enjoy. Randi concedes, of course, that not every aspiring author can afford to hire an editor. Nevertheless, she says, “A person with a story should not limit themselves because they feel inadequate. Write. Read. Write. Then write more. If you can afford to, take a workshop and learn. I couldn’t have done it without the writing workshops. In my case, specifically, the memoir workshop taught me to be honest on the page. Eventually, you will find that you have completed a work, and then you will be able to figure out the next best step. But, there is no next step if you don’t start!”
In the end, to write a book, be it a memoir, a novel, or anything else, something inside is more important than one’s inspiration, education or professional skill. “I think it’s passion,” Randi says, “and a determination to give yourself the gift of saying, I did it. It doesn’t matter what happens to your book. It doesn’t matter if it’s not a bestseller. But allow yourself to be able to say, I finished. The book is ancillary to the passion. Enjoy the process.”
Publishing: Build a platform. Having finished the manuscript and embarked on the agent search, Randi has been “building her platform.” She has her own website and she’s established a presence on social media. She has attended conferences where she’s met authors of bestselling books on her general subject but approached from other angles (with the hope of getting one of those authors to write a foreword). She has become a screener for the prestigious Malcolm Baldridge Awards. She has submitted excerpts, and seen one get published. And she has done interviews like this one, with broadcast outlets as well as print.
Thus, when the next interested agent calls and asks the inevitable “Do you have a platform?” question, Randi will be able to answer with a resounding, “Yes!”
That’s exclamation point, close quote, Randi.—Alex McNab