Calling 911: A dispatcher's quick literary response
Published: April 7, 2011
|I've always been a writer, but never really burned to write a book until I took the job that changed my life. |
In 2003, I landed a job as a 911 dispatcher at a busy county communications center in Minnesota. I had no idea what I was in for. Barely out of training, I answered a call from a 12-year-old who had just watched her mother commit suicide. That night, sleepless and unable to stop replaying the trauma in my head, I wrote what would eventually become the first chapter of my memoir.
I continued to write as a way to cope with the stress of the job, making notes on the good, the bad, and the horrific. After a while, I couldn’t imagine not writing about the job. An avid reader, I searched the Internet for other books by 911 dispatchers and found none. Plenty had been published by and about cops, firefighters and paramedics, but nothing about 911 dispatchers.
In Minneapolis, we are fortunate to have a literary center called The Loft. Every year, it chooses a dozen writers to be a part of its Mentor Series. I submitted my best 50 pages, and in 2004 I got the call: I had been selected for a nine-month mentorship.
Through the Mentor Series, I attended writing classes and one-on-one meetings with published authors such as Alison McGhee, Molly Peacock and Mark Winegardner. I continued writing and revising. Research confirmed that my story was unique, and my mentors told me my story needed to be heard. I took advantage of an early opportunity to read my work-in-progress at a Loft event. It was there that I met my future editor, Ann Regan, of Borealis Books.
What I learned
Some say, and I agree, that my road to getting published was much easier than most: Essentially, I had a publisher interested before I even had a completed manuscript. But I never took anything for granted. In 2005, Ann gave me a deadline for finishing the book. I knew I’d be a complete fool if I didn’t do exactly what she was asking.
Writing a book and editing a manuscript for publication are two different things. The editing process was humbling; I had much to learn about style and storytelling, and learning to let go of writing that doesn’t belong in the bigger picture. With few exceptions, I deferred to Ann’s experience.
My advice to anyone who wants to write a memoir is this: Write what you’re passionate about. Write on what is unique about your life. Work memoirs are gaining in popularity because readers enjoy peeking into the everyday lives of others. Know where the gaps are in the market, but stay true to who you are. There’s no point in writing an inauthentic memoir.
Know what’s out there on the bookshelves already, and read as much of it as you can. I’ve learned just as much from memoirs I didn’t like as from memoirs I couldn’t put down.
During the writing process, surround yourself with successful, talented writers who have what you want, then be a sponge. It’s not essential that they write in your genre, just that writing is a regular part of their daily lives. Good writers know good writing. Embrace criticism. Editing is your friend!
My advice to anyone staring at their first publishing contract is this: Speak softly and hire a good literary attorney. In my eagerness to please the publisher, I failed to secure certain rights to my book, and regretted it later. When I complained, my publisher told me “the horse is out of the barn.” Unfortunately, he was right.
A reputable publisher will generally hire or assign a publicist to promote your book, so get ready to be busy. If you’re shy about reading your work out loud, practice until you’re not. Do your best to be available for interviews, readings and speaking engagements. Word of mouth sells books. Be on time and keep a big smile on. Who wants to read the musings of a sourpuss?
Conversely, it’s OK, beyond the initial publicity push, to start charging for appearances. Your time is worth something. Since Answering 911 was released in 2006, I have spoken at several 911 dispatch conferences, where I have been paid a fee in addition to selling my books on site. I’ll never be able to quit my day job, but it’s still good extra income—not to mention how satisfying it is to meet folks who can’t wait to talk to you about your book.
The best reason to write a book is still because you cannot imagine not writing it.
Caroline Burau is the author of Answering 911: Life in the Hot Seat (Borealis Books). She remains a 911 dispatcher, as well as a freelance writer and blogger. Her articles have appeared in a number of publications, including the Chicago Sun Times and Mpls St Paul. She lives with her husband and daughter in White Bear Lake, Minn.||