All it Takes is One

The Honored Role Series will return next week.

Writing is a solitary act, but publishing is a team effort. The journey from paper or computer screen to an actual book is a long and circuitous one. It is hard work and it is a process, one in which emotions modulate like a sine wave. During the last several weeks since the publication of my first book, I received many inquiries into what motivated me to put pen to paper (more accurately fingers to the keyboard) and to share my maiden voyage.

Some writers write to open windows bringing their view to a reader or hold open a door that the reader steps through to join the writer for a time in the world they create with their story. Good writers transport readers—taking them to a place of new knowledge and understanding. Good writers make statements and their words have an impact. I have a love of linguistic alchemy and penchant for trying new things. And I believed I had a story that could affect others.

Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line was born out of my experience as a high school volleyball coach in 2004. Concerned with many of the role models my young athletes admired, I remembered with pride many of the women with whom I had served at West Point and in the Army. These women had courage, strength and resilience under many stressful and challenging situations—the type of adversity that tests true character. These women passed that test and could serve as sterling role models. I felt that if my team could learn about some of them, perhaps they would consider pursuing comparable paths of excellence. I set my azimuth.

Decades ago, I came upon the quote “Life is not about the breaths we take, but the moments that take our breath way.” Previous adventures have taught me that success has less to do with the accumulation of things and more to do with the accumulation of moments, and that creating a successful life might be as simple as determining which moments are the most valuable, and seeing how many of those I can string together in a line. Writing a book seemed like a good addition to my string so I set to work.

Every Soldier has a Story

My premise was to portray a group of women who share common education and developmental experiences at West Point and as Army officers, but chose varied paths in and out of the Army.

Leaning on my engineering education, I sketched plans and drew PERT charts, with a rainbow of color coding, for researching, writing, editing, marketing and publishing my book. I wanted to be a writer—so I laid my plans. But planning does not produce words. It was time to write.

The process began with a query to the graduate woman of West Point in 2004. At that time, there were 2,676. A few hundred responded and I began collecting stories. Some were joyous, some tragic, some unbelievable, all inspiring. Many questionnaires and interviews followed to develop the stories. Some were long and others were brief. In all there were laughter and tears—the cocktail mix of their lives.

Devotion to the Muse

I wrote and deleted, wrote and saved. Frequently interviewing one woman, writing a chapter on a second, and editing a third. I want to say that I wrote with the discipline of David McCullough, the determination of Steve Pressfield, and the wit of Anna Quindlen. I didn’t. I tried each day. Some days the muse came and other days I gave in to resistance and did not give her my undivided attention and focus. In return, she left me empty.

As chapters were completed, several people read and edited them. In many, more red than black appeared on the page. I, as I anticipate others, often questioned how I passed freshman composition and Comparative Literature.

Writing is akin to training for a sport. One has to develop strength, stamina, speed and agility. Training develops muscle memory. Writing exercises and strengthens the brain muscle. Without it, it atrophies.

With each version and edit, my writing improved, got tighter and more precise. I learned that economy of language is an art and very hard to master. It’s akin to golf; one can always improve, but can never win.

With the manuscript and proposal complete, I began to query agents and publishers confident everyone would want this collection. Reality set in quickly. I received rejection after rejection. Some were not even addressed to me.

Thus the odyssey continued. It seemed that one had to be a philandering politician engaged in an extra marital affair, a has-been actress involved in a 17-year incestuous relationship with one’s father, or an elected official who quit her job to get a major trade publisher to print your work.

About that time, I received an email from best-selling author John Grisham in which told me to prepare for rejection and lots of it — the first 15 agents and 16 publishers he approached said “no” to him! Unfortunately, I surpassed his high water mark for denial.

Patience has never been my strength, but perseverance has. I knew all I needed was one yes. Grisham didn’t stop with “no” and now has 30 best sellers to his name.

Sharing your Dreams

Ironically, that one yes came from Navy veteran Dennis Lowery and retired Marine Lt. Colonel Jim Zumwalt, co-founders of Fortis Publishing — all from an introduction made by Hae Sue Park, my dear friend, classmate and ski teammate. Fortis, as some may know, is Latin for “strong, courageous and resourceful”. Dennis and Jim are committed to ensuring the stories of West Point women were not written with invisible ink.

Between 1980 and 2009, 3,397 women graduated from West Point and have served selflessly in the Nation’s armed forces. They are soldiers and wives, mothers and daughters. They are doctors, lawyers, teachers, clergy and entrepreneurs. They are athletes and artists, cancer survivors and coaches.

As I embarked on this writing journey six years ago, I quickly had more stories than I could possibly tell.

We know of the many leaders, icons, history makers, star athletes and celebrities. We know less about those that served our Nation. My goal is to change that.

The women in this book willingly shared some very personal and intimate experiences. Their willingness another example of bravery.

The group of women selected for Porcelain on Steel spans a range of classes that graduated women, and contains a mother and her daughter. The inclusion of a wide variety of experiences, both inside and outside the armed forces, reflects a spectrum of post-West Point life history for all graduates. Their experiences are as diverse as the women themselves are.

This broad array speaks of and for women graduates of West Point. I attempted to secure their voices, unencumbered, with as little formality and pretense as possible. I made every effort to inspire each woman to ell her story openly and authentically. Each chapter of this book is a foreword to the pages of each graduates own book, should she write one.

Adding to that Line

Several months of late nights and early mornings, multiple conference calls, hundreds of edits, dozens of files, and gigabytes of memory, the manuscript, started six years earlier transformed into a hardcover book. It is an intensely satisfying moment and emotionally liberating to hold that book in your hands. And when someone writes you a note and says they loved your book, or they read it and cried … or wanted to cheer as they read. It is an emotional high.

You see, life moves in waves and sometimes the crest or trough of a wave carries with it an instant—when you see more clearly or realize the meaning of things—you appreciate the value of the journey itself and see the path ahead with different eyes. Writing a book is that way. When I held my book—the hardbound book in my hands the first time—it was one of those moments.

Often a moment like that is life-changing…and all it takes is one.


4 Responses to All it Takes is One

  1. Dennis Lowery August 11, 2010 at 6:48 pm #

    Excellent Donna. Well done!


  2. Sue Tendy August 11, 2010 at 7:21 pm #

    You have absolutely captured the persona of the women you have written about. I know many of them personally, have taught and/or coached them at West Point, (as well as some of their children!) and have kept in touch as their careers have progressed. I can say with certainty that you have brought them to life on the written page for the rest of the world to experience. The final product that you write so eloquently about above– the actual book — is the important “final chapter” in your adventure – the one about YOU!! — that enables the rest of us to appreciate what it takes to succeed.

  3. Lindamaloney August 26, 2010 at 10:42 pm #

    Wow Donna, I can so relate to your journey!!

  4. donnamcaleer August 30, 2010 at 3:44 am #

    @Linda–Thanks for reading. It is a journey many of us share.