Monday, June 9, 2014

My First Time: Sheana Ochoa

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Sheana Ochoa, author of Stella! Mother of Modern Acting, the first biography on legendary actor and acting teacher Stella Adler.  Sheana received a Masters in Professional Writing at the University of Southern California.  She has published widely in such outlets as Salon, and the Los Angeles Review of Books' affiliate, The Levantine Review.  She inaugurated the One-Act Play festival at the Stella Adler Academy where she directed her one-act play, The Masterpiece.  In 2012, she became a founding member of Freedom Theater West, co-producing their premier production.  She is presently mounting Harold and Stella: Love Letters in New York and Los Angeles.  Learn more about Sheana and the Stella Adler biography at her website.

My First Unopened Book

A couple of months ago I heard the distinctive thud of boxes being delivered at my door by our mail carrier.  I knew they were author’s copies of my first book, a biography on acting legend Stella Adler.  I didn’t rush out to bring them in as I had imagined I would, but left them on the porch.  There were more important things to attend to--such as, editing a YouTube video of me talking about the book, returning emails to bloggers for whom I might guest blog, and pitching an event to yet another venue for my upcoming book tour.

This maelstrom of marketing, of going to bed at night with a new to-do list percolating in my mind has consumed me for over six months: revamp my website, map out my blog posts, find book reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads, make a book trailer, and on and on.  The arrival of my book at the door was a quiet thump in the din of the roaring high-speed train from which I could not disembark.

That night my husband came home and carried in the books, his phone camera at the ready to catch me seeing my book for the first time.  I pulled a copy out.  It was a solid hardback unlike the paperback galley copies.  My husband, my copyeditor and I had meticulously gone over each page from my acknowledgments to the last endnote many times.  I wanted an error-free book.  I didn’t even take a break on holidays leading up to turning in the final manuscript, working with a stomach full of turkey and gravy after Thanksgiving dinner, and with crumpled wrapping paper still strewn across the living room on Christmas day, reading and rereading for typos, misused words, incorrect spacing.

I opened the book and slowly began reading the first paragraph of the inside cover flap, which I quickly realized was not what I had entrusted to the copy editor.  It reads: “Stella mentored successive generations of superstars, including Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor--” and I snapped the book closed and almost hurled it across the room.  How did this error occur?  Stella Adler did not mentor these two actresses and I never wrote that she had.

After proclaiming for over a decade that I was writing the book in service to Stella, a labor of love to reclaim her legacy, it suddenly became a lot about me.  How would this inaccuracy reflect on my credibility?  Writers don’t have room for ego.  Still, I haven’t picked up the book again except to cite the erroneous quote above.  I’m not a masochist.  At some point, I will take that book flap off and look at the biography, hold it, smell it, see the photograph inserts I painstakingly chose, but I don’t know when.

The books are still in their boxes, covered with postcards and flyers and envelopes and labels--the mayhem of my marketing efforts.  The excitement of their arrival has worn off, and I figure I’ll take a look when life settles down and I can appreciate it.  Besides, I couldn’t bear to discover more errors.

But don’t worry—this story ends well.  You know in the movies when a beleaguered writer or perhaps the unrequited lover of a washed-up author suddenly stops by a bookshop window to find the book displayed, all shiny and new?  I know it’s cliché, but it happened to me.  I dropped by a local bookstore where I was scheduled to appear to leave flyers.  As I left the store, something made me go back and look at the storefront window.  There I was, a poster with my name in big letters, advertising the event.  And there was my book, actually a few of them lined up neatly.

I felt so giddy I went back to my car to do what my husband had tried to do when my books arrived in the mail: grab my phone to capture the moment.  It seems appropriate that my first time “seeing” my book should be behind a window, removed, unreachable, because I never really completed it.  Paul Valéry wrote, "A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations."

I feel that way about Stella Adler’s biography.  After thirteen years, I made a conscious decision to wrap it up by signing a publishing contract and becoming beholden to a deadline.  I could have spent another decade writing her story, and though I don’t feel I abandoned the book, at a certain point I just had to let it go, realizing that I have other books to write.  Next time, however, I’ll have the wisdom to give myself a break, to allow myself the luxury of congratulating myself instead of judging the work.  I’ll hear my new books arrive in the mail and carry them in myself to honor the accomplishment.

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