Monday, March 24, 2014

A living tribute to a writer friend

Only a few of the books I've helped Diane critique over the years.
The recent unexpected death of a longtime writer friend made me wish I had written something while she was still alive, because I'm having trouble writing about her now.

That reminded me of an intro speech I'd given for another writer friend, with whose critique group I've been a member for many years (at least twenty). I dug out that speech and decided to share it here, because tributes should not only be given after a person is gone. I originally gave this speech in 2005 at the main San Antonio (Texas) library to introduce my friend, Diane Gonzales Bertrand, when she was to be given an award by the library:
Our group after last December's critique/Christmas lunch in Fredericksburg, Texas

Being a fiction writer is a strange and wonderful thing.  Your head is full of characters in various stages of evolution, all clamoring for you to tell THEIR story!  To a non-writer it must seem a form of madness, and so naturally, fiction writers are drawn to one another to share this madness.

When you write a rough draft, the words pour directly from your heart in all their unpolished glory.  Reading these awkward nuggets gives a glimpse into the writer’s soul.  Being able to offer and receive honest feedback from one another not only polishes prose into a saleable diamond but strengthens the personal relationship between the writers. 

I first met Diane about 15 years ago (note: now 24!) through the San Antonio Writers Guild.  We were both young mothers and teachers with an insatiable need to write.  We began publishing about the same time—Diane in the book market and me in magazines and anthologies.  At first I was a little in awe of her—I was still insecure about my abilities and she seemed so confident and vivacious.   However, through our exchanges in a small critique group, I came to know her as a generous friend. 

For example, about two years ago we were both invited to participate in a book fair at San Antonio College where the authors were assigned tables under a large tent so people could buy their books.  Diane asked the organizers if she and I could share a table.  I was especially glad because in my experience it has been difficult for me to sell books without the benefit of my presentation, since my name is not a household word.

I learned a lot from Diane that day.  She cheerfully hawked her many books with bubbling enthusiasm.  She always encouraged people to check out my book, too!  By the end of the day most of her stacks had disappeared.  I wouldn’t have sold any if it weren’t for her sales pitch!

Another more poignant example of Diane’s generosity happened this spring when I had to undergo chemotherapy and missed several months of our critique group.  She not only emailed me on almost a daily basis but took time from her busy schedule to write me real letters filled with day-to-day happenings just like a “chat over coffee” to help me feel connected to the outside world.  She also sent me pages to critique which helped me feel like I was still a valuable member of our writers’ group.  She sent me a copy of her latest book, Upside Down and Backwards, which our group had critiqued.  Words are not adequate to describe how much those gestures meant to me during that desperate time.

Diane and I have often bemoaned the frustration of breaking in with the big houses in New York.  But I am so thankful that Arte Publico Press and the people of San Antonio recognize Diane’s talent and her valuable contribution to children’s literature.  Someday New York will figure out what we have known for years:  that Diane’s books tell the story of familia in a way that touches the heart, just as her life has touched mine and that of so many others. 

To paraphrase the last line in E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”  Diane is both.
Two weeks ago at the Boerne, Texas library--Diane on right
Our critique group (all writers for children, from picture books through YA) has changed over the years as writers have come and gone (and Jan was the second one to die--I wish I'd thought to get a photo while she was with our group), but Diane and I keep going and going, as long as we have stories to share.