Tuesday, August 14, 2012

John Dwaine McKenna: To Be Remembered

In the 22nd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, John Dwaine McKenna, author of The Neversink Chronicles (Rhyolite Press), talks about coping with adversity.

If you’re fortunate and live a long enough life, at some point you’ll be faced with adversity because perfect lives only come in fairy tales. Real life is hard, unfair, tragic, heartbreaking, incomprehensible, competitive, joyous, unpredictable, finite . . . and somewhere along the line between birth and death, each and every one of us will deal with adversity. Then, after being annealed by it, we will be changed for the rest of our lives.

For our family adversity came with the millennium. On Friday,  February 18,  2000, at eight o'clock in the evening, our lives were changed forever when I fell about three feet and introduced my face to the hardwood floor. When I tried to move, my right side from shoulder to toe was paralyzed. I'd just become a quadriplegic.

I was fifty-three years old. June and I had been married almost twenty-four years and we were both devastated. It was inconceivable. I was athletic, 6 feet, 220, in robust health until then.

Saturday, February 19, I underwent five hours of surgery to repair my cervical spine. A plate was screwed into my third and fourth vertebrae after the cartilage had been removed, the spinal canal enlarged and bone from a tissue bank grafted in. My neck was fused. Held in a medically induced coma, I awoke Wednesday the twenty-third, in the critical care unit, a changed man, lucky to be alive.

Nine weeks later, after a ton of therapy and medical attention, I was discharged from the hospital into a whole new reality. I’d gone through a period of liminality and emerged from it . . . a disabled man, into an alternate universe . . . and it was forever: no oly oly oxen frees, hey waits!, or do-overs.

Over the next six or seven years, I grieved for my old self. It happened in stages: despondency, self-pity, grief, depression, and anger all took their turns. More than once, I thought about taking Highway .357 to heaven. But I just couldn’t; too many people loved and supported me. First and foremost was June, the woman I promised to love and honor for all of my days . . . who was suffering in silence, as much as me. Through it all, she stuck by me, and slowly, bit by bit, I recovered; some elements snapped into place somewhere in my brain and I got busy living again.

While auditing a class at the University of Colorado, I reengaged my writing talent. It wasn’t easy ‒ at first  I was so rusty I was embarrassed to share anything. I wrote a lot, revised it until I wanted to throw up, let it rest a while, reread it, then threw it all away and started over. And over. And over again. I tried entering contests. Never heard back. Wrote to agents. Same result. I got depressed again . . . but I never stopped.


I volunteered to do a weekly book review column for a small newspaper in my hometown back in upstate New York and I reassessed my situation. But I kept writing.

Every day.

I decided that at my age, I couldn't afford ten years of submissions as James Lee Burke did, before finding a publisher, I'd not have much of a shelf life left. After a lot of talk and reflection, as well as a book called The Beethoven Factor, I put my years of business experience to work and started a publishing company called Rhyolite Press. I hired an editor, designer, formatter, photographer, webmaster and a web strategist who creates buzz, all on a contract basis. Last, I found the perfect assistant, who types four to six hours each week. She's indispensable.

We printed my first book, The Neversink Chronicles. It got favorable reviews and we sold some copies, gave away a bunch and then . . . lightning struck: it won first prize for fiction at the annual CIPA awards ceremony in Denver on May 17, 2012. Now, in mid-August, Rhyolite Press is about to publish my next book, a coming-of-age and murder mystery, which will be followed shortly after by an environmental thriller from a new author who has more than 500 magazine articles to his credit.

Am I excited? You bet!

Getting rich? Not hardly.

Will we publish more books? Absolutely.

Why . . . Because I want to leave a mark on the world ‒ proof that this life was lived, to leave a piece of myself behind and perhaps . . . be remembered for it.