Five Things I Didn’t Know About Writing a Book

When an editor at NBP approached me last year to write a book about iPad accessibility for parents and teachers, I jumped at the chance. After all, I have been doing iPad training for years. How hard would it be to put it into words? Little did I know how wrong my initial assessment would be, and what an incredible learning experience it would become, both professionally and for me personally.

1.   Stick to a Schedule

I run a small business where I basically operate under the principle of “The one who yells the loudest” gets my attention. It took my ordinarily mild-mannered editor at NBP to literally threaten me with David Ortiz’s bat to get me to stick to a publishing schedule. And I quote: If Chapter 1 is not submitted by noon on Friday, the ball game is over. The same went for the rest of the chapters. Once I got into the swing of things, I was able to build up the momentum it took to actually write a book.

 2.   Editing Hurts

My wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing editor made me commit, in writing, to “work with her through any number of edits until the book was right.” By doing so, I set in motion one of the most painful four months of my life. I had no clue that an author had to be involved in clarifying, restating, and regurgitating every section of the book over and over and over. All kidding aside, though, I see now that the final edited version is far superior to the “completed manuscript” I originally submitted—what I now refer to, affectionately, as my “very rough draft.”

3.   The Author Doesn’t Know Everything

This was yet another truth that was nearly impossible for me to grasp! During the editing process, my lion-tamer editor got the idea that she could ask other professionals for their opinions—I mean, she actually dared to question the author! But then a funny thing happened: I was tamed. I learned that by involving others and considering their opinions, I could take a more objective panoramic view of what we were trying to accomplish.

4.   Book Reviewers Have Opinions, Too

By the time the final copy went out to a team of reviewers, I thought the worst was over. Early reviews were very positive; I felt vindicated. But then minor suggestions cropped up, followed by major adjustments, including a series of “YIKES!,” with yet further revisions. It felt like a “shark feeding.” Gradually, though, I began to see that the reviewers re-shaped this book into something far more inclusive than I could have done alone.

5.   No Pain, No GainLarry Lewis, author of iOS Success, sitting at his desk with a copy of the book and an iPad

I can’t really describe the overwhelming sense of pride and completeness that came over me when I was informed the book was truly finished and off to the printer. Perhaps these feelings were accentuated by the realities of so many months of really hard work to get this book “right.” And one more thing I’m absolutely certain of: By the time you read this copy, it will no longer be a rough draft.

Behind the Lens

Twenty-some years ago, a fair-haired young man climbed the steps to 88 St. Stephen Street with a proposition. He had recently opened a photography business, he explained, and he was doing quite well. The pay was good, mostly commercial work—portraits of CEOs, corporate images for annual reports, commercial shots for advertising copy, and the like. He said he had been so lucky, he wanted to give something back. He saw NBP’s sign out front. Do you need any free photography?

Cover of 'iOS Success'.  Photography by Webb Chappell

Cover of ‘iOS Success’

Free? Not even lunch is free. I was lucky enough to be in the office that day, to take advantage of Webb Chappell’s amazing offer. I think his first assignment—this was the mid-80s—was to photograph one of our customers using a personal computer with speech at Honeywell. This was cutting edge. More recently, Webb did a promotional photo for Stir It Up!, NBP’s cookbook for blind children, and just last month, he shot the book cover for our newly released iOS Success: Making the iPad Accessible.

And so it continues—now approaching three decades—the two of us heading out on shoots, not knowing what might transpire behind the lens. We grew up, our kids grew up, and Webb kept his pledge to “give something back.” On a recent volunteer assignment, Webb brought along a new fair-haired assistant, his son Julian. My goodness, the last time I saw Julian, he was a child. I asked him, Did he know the story of how his dad got involved with NBP? He didn’t (and from the look on Webb’s face, I’m not sure he remembered either). As I retold the story, my voice breaking up with emotion, Julian learned something about the man his dad is. And I got a chance to give back.

Boston Bomber Won’t Stop Us

NBP has been part of the John Hancock Non-profit Boston Marathon program for two years now.  It has proven to be a wonderful way to raise money and awareness for braille literacy.  We were able to make a big statement about the capabilities of blind people by having two of our runners, one in each year, run blindfolded.

So when I received a text from one of our board members with the devastating news that two bombs exploded at the Finish Line of the Marathon, my first concern was for his safety and that of his friend – one of our runners who had just crossed the finish line 10 minutes earlier.  My concern then went to our other runners still on the course, their friends and families, and the Boston community.  After an hour and a half of not being able to communicate on my cell phone, I finally connected and they were thankfully all safe.

As I sat at home after speaking to all of our runners that evening and heard that many of the runners crossing the finish line at the time of the explosions were charity runners, I began to wonder if this horrible act of violence would derail our efforts.  My sadness turned to anger, and I wrote the following letter to each of our Marathon runners—Erin, Gus, and Bridget:

I am glad you made it back home safely.  On behalf of the staff and people we serve at NBP, I want to again express my gratitude for representing us on Monday.  You had a great run, and I hope you can find the time to be proud of your accomplishments.  You trained hard and overcame challenges during the training, you raised awareness about the importance of braille, and you helped change perceptions of what it means to be blind.  Your efforts so far have raised thousands of dollars so that blind children and adults can read! 

I hate it that your marathon experience was marred by despicable people.  As a small token of my gratitude and appreciation, I have made a personal donation of $262 in support of each of your marathon fundraising efforts.  I hope it is a symbol that this horrific act will not outshine all of the good you and all of the other charity runners are doing.  You, the volunteers, and the emergency responders have made lives better and that should not be eclipsed by violence.   

I will post about your efforts on my Facebook page and ask all of my friends to support you.  Let’s show these terrorists that good and helping others will always overcome evil!  Let’s keep spreading the word of all of the good you have done and what we can do together.  I will help you in any way that I can.

With my sincerest appreciation and admiration,

Joe

A Passion for Poetry

April is National Poetry Month. Is there any other art form that performs an aria with fewer notes than poetry? I came to poetry long after my school days were over, well into adulthood. What the dead, white poets hadn’t done for me, hot-blooded mamas like Lucille Clifton, Mary Oliver, Anna Swir, and Sharon Olds did. I happened to say as much to a good friend of mine, who confessed she never had developed a passion for verse. Thus began our six-month collaboration to find and publish a collection of poems in braille—adopting Emily Dickinson’s visceral definition: “When I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”

dwell in possibility... - Emily DickinsonI’m not sure Emily would have approved of every poem; some are clearly erotic. We chose not to censor in braille what is not forbidden in print. On the other hand, we didn’t want the collection to become a middle-school graduation gift, so we added the tagline: “This is not your grandmother’s poetry.” Not everyone got the hint. One very polite caller left a sweet message on my machine, confessing to being somewhat old-fashioned, and, after much hemming and hawing, suggested we prepare the reader more explicitly.

Although sales for The Poetry of Everyday Life have been modest, those who gave in to the temptation are glad they did. Wrote John from St. Louis, “For me, these poems are what poetry should be… about life as it is lived and experienced by real people like me, but expressed in ways I could never come up with. They are not simple and sentimental. They are about our lives.” Nancy from Easton, PA, who reads from the collection at poetry gatherings, claims “reading Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese in braille is worth the price of the entire book—those last few lines…”

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Braille Behind Bars

Nowadays, opening an envelope with a handwritten letter tucked inside is as rare as hen’s teeth (a phrase hatched in mid-19th century America, where anyone with a chicken coop could see that birds have beaks, not teeth). But I digress from the subject of handwritten braille correspondence, which, like print, has been almost completely supplanted by emails and tweets.

So when a braille letter arrives at NBP, we expect something out of the ordinary. Take, for example, the braille letter from a federal prisoner serving a seventeen-month sentence for a white-collar crime. He wrote that his braille books had been confiscated when (as was customary for new arrivals) he was placed in solitary confinement. “I found myself alone with no radio, no braille, no audio. My only company was a talking watch. Three times a day a food tray passed through an open slot by silent hands…”

Hand reaching through a prison cell slot“And then, on the fifth day, a small miracle happened. A slim volume of braille was pushed through the slot, Syndicated Columnists Weekly. I literally cradled it. I read about the energy crisis, the upcoming Congressional elections…things going on in the world outside. And then I read it again and again. The promise of hope fanned by SCW in that cell made it, like nothing else, a part of life outside. As Joni Mitchell wrote, ‘…you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’”

I think he was wrong on that last account. We do know. Literacy—in print or braille—is a window to the world.