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Anatomy of an article

shutterstock_73892212I wanted to write a little bit about the process of writing that Brain Child disruption article. It’s the first time in a long while that I’ve written something this reported that wasn’t straight service and I loved writing it even though it was hard and I had a lot of adoption-related nightmares while I was writing it. This is very long so I’m putting it all below the cut (I also don’t have time to edit so forgive any stupidity on my part) but I thought other writers might be interested in this. This was my query letter, which I pitched in December:

By now you’ve surely heard about Anita Teldadi who wrote a Motherlode blog about giving up her adopted son away after failing to bond with him. The letters section, naturally, exploded. Was Anita a brave mother willing to face up to her limitations and give her son a better life? Or was she a selfish woman who threw away a baby for not fitting in to her family? Anita has since appeared on Today defending her decision while in the background her essays about adoption (including one critical of another disrupted family and another celebrating her son’s arrival) have been quietly scrubbed off the internet.

Disrupted adoptions are the dirty underbelly of adoption. According to a 2004 article published by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, disruptions may end up to 25% of adoptions but these numbers are hard to come by. International adoptions sometimes disrupt before the child ever leaves his or her home country and some disrupt before the adoption is finalized back at home. There are agencies that specialize in “re-placing” adopted children into new families and an underground network of desperate parents sometimes move children into new families on their own.

How does this happen? Whose fault is it?

I’m proposing an article digging deeper into adoption disruptions to get a better understanding of how they come about, how they can be prevented and what happens to those re-homed children. I will speak with Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation and head of Evan B. Donaldson adoption institute think tank as well as Sharon Roszia director of the kinship center in LA. I will also talk to adult adoptee activists like Jae Ran Kim, a social worker as well as a contributor to Outsiders Within: Writers on Transracial Adoption and an adult international adoptee. I will also speak with parents who have disrupted their children’s adoptions and those parents who have adopted “re-placed” children. While I will use Anita’s story to introduce the topic, I will look beyond one family’s story to get a better understanding disruption in general and what it has to say about our cultural experience of adoption.

I will write this from the point of view of an adoptive mother who is willing to confront the “as if born to” myth. Can we love adopted children “just the same” as our bio kids? Do these heavy expectations make it harder when the going gets tough? How can we better serve the kids we take into our collective homes?

Note that I did NOT end up talking to Adam Pertman or Sharon Roszia. Usually I put “experts like” to give me an out but I didn’t this time although I did with Jae Ran because I was less sure if I’d be able to interview her. I knew I could interview Sharon because I have before and I figured I’d be able to interview Adam because the Evan B. Donaldson people have actual paid PR workers to make sure that he gets interviewed. The reason I didn’t speak with them is that the more I thought about what I wanted to do, the more I wanted to talk to other people. I also ended up not writing as much about what happens to kids AFTER. But the gist of it — the “as if born to” myth and how it might contribute to disruption — stayed in the piece. I also ended up writing a piece that was less judgmental than I thought it would be because when I talked to families who disrupted, I understood their decision.

At first I wanted to talk to families locally because I hoped to visit them. I imagined sitting with them on their couches and maybe even looking at pictures of the children they had adopted and then surrendered. But the people I spoke with here were very very wary. They were in a lot of pain and understandably defensive. I clung to the idea of getting someone local for way too long and then I ended up kind of scrambling. Carol agreed to talk with me right away but then our emails crossed or I mislabeled one so I thought I wasn’t hearing from her and I put her aside as an interviewee. I found someone else willing to be interviewed, which was a relief but I was getting worried. I knew I needed a strong central story that would humanize the issues and I knew I needed it soon because I couldn’t really do my expert interviews without some of what would end up in print in mind. I also reached out to Anita Teldadi herself through several avenues because it’s clear she wasn’t telling the whole story and I thought what the heck, why not see if she’d talk to me. (She never responded to any of my pleas.) Then I connected with Tiruba and started interviewing experts so then I had a sort of weak disruption story (the mother willing to speak with me was very very very guarded and after our initial phone call, it was hard to get more info) and Tiruba’s story and some ideas but it wasn’t going to be that great. I tried to make it work as a post-disruption piece but my editor (rightly) said no, that would undermine the central thesis (the “as if born to” myth) so I reached out to Carol again hoping she wasn’t blowing me off. And she wasn’t. Oh my how she wasn’t.

You can see how much Carol’s sharing shaped the whole article and you can also see how brave her sharing was. Some of you will recognize her because you already follow her story (she’s ok with that — she just didn’t want to be all that google-able). Carol knows what people have said about her and she doesn’t care really (or if she cares, she doesn’t let that stop her). She sees herself as an advocate for parents and for kids who need more than their parents can give them. There is SO MUCH she shared that didn’t end up in the article but that is extremely important like how she went back to the agency to try to get them to see what they needed to do to better serve those children and their wannabe adoptive parents. Like reaching out to other families using the agency, like her willingness to criticize her own decisions so that she can help other parents learn from her mistakes.

Carol’s voice was a huge, huge benefit to the article and to me not just because she was willing to talk about her son’s adoption and dissolution. Her interview also highlighted so much of what Tiruba was saying to me and I felt incredibly lucky to have their complementary stories. Then Patty (who my editor found for me) gave me a wonderful interview that really showed someone in the thick of it and spoke compellingly of the difference post-adoption support could make for a threatened family. She was also the one who really helped me understand how flexible parents need to be in their definition of what it means to be a parent. When she talked about not being able to cuddle on the couch to read to her son, I GOT it. I got how much missing those small rewards could chip away at a parent’s ability to stay committed. And it fit my thesis, too, because it spoke to the need for preparation and it also, I felt, highlighted why some parents whose children aren’t struggling as much as Carol’s and Patty’s and Tiruba’s might want to re-home them.

I couldn’t find any parent who didn’t have truly compelling reasons for disruption. Every single parent I spoke to whether they ended up letting me interview them or not told me about extreme violence towards themselves or other children in the family that preceded the adoption. I asked every expert I spoke with about the idea of a parent who disrupted an adoption because they were simply tired of the kid and none of them had a story that matched this although some had stories (Arleta and Katie) that were less extreme. I tried to contact some of the “therapy” camps (the ones that purport to treat kids with horseback riding and camping trips) but I’d reach out and then not hear back. I also got some very few quotes from the woman who works for a law practice that disrupts adoptions and does re-adoptions. I was really really really annoyed that she wouldn’t let me use her name because it’s not like they operate anonymously and also because if I could have used her name, I could have added some backstory but without her name, the backstory would have potentially taken up too much time in the piece. (I can tell you this without threatening her anonymity: She used to be involved with an adoption agency. This agency did the kinds of things the article criticizes. So as happy as she is to condemn parents who disrupt, she does not seem willing to consider her own complicity in this. Argh.)

Anyway. I felt good. I turned in the piece for edits. Note: I also did something I never ever ever do. I gave the unedited but mostly finished piece to the families I interviewed. I never do this for obvious reasons — sources don’t get to dictate how the story goes. But I did it this time because the people I interviewed were putting so much trust in me to tell their very sensitive stories. I wanted to be sure I was doing right by them. I wanted them to understand how much I was sharing so they could revisit their decision. I also wanted them to fact check. A big magazine like Parenting does their own fact checking (usually with an intern) and it’s great because you know if you missed a word in an interview or misunderstood (“Oh you said your daughter was TURNING seven? But she’s actually six?”) or the person misspoke, they can fix it. But Brain Child doesn’t have interns or editorial assistants — they’re a small, diligent magazine operating on a pretty small budget — so I tried doing my own fact checking. And I got some minor details wrong so the families were able to fix them. So they all signed off except one who asked that I pull her story entirely, which left an ENORMOUS gaping hole in the piece. It was a nightmare. I tried pleading with her and she stopped returning my emails. I totally get her decision (her story was very recent and still raw and painful) but it created a mess for me and a little tiny party of me was wishing I hadn’t given her an out. Although I think it was the right thing to do.

At this point, too, the woman in Tennessee put her son on the plane. Argh. I knew this meant yet more rewrites and I also knew it meant there’d be scads of information coming out in the media and I’d have to figure out how much of what I wanted to say would be redundant to readers by the time the article came out. Truthfully I wanted to crawl under my bed and not come out for awhile. But then I read two posts from John Raible. This one and this one. And I went — doh! Like Homer. I slapped my head. Because where did my good intentions go about interviewing any adult adoptees? THAT was the voice so clearly missing! I knew I wanted to interview Astrid and Jae Ran and there were some other adult adopted people I reached out to, too, but it was around the time of a big conference so I knew it was pushing it.

Astrid and Jae Ran were INCREDIBLE. They both talked to me for a long, long time. They suffered my naive questions with grace. Astrid read the piece as it was and gave me feedback in several places including reminding me that RAD kids should be kids with RAD. Most importantly they spoke to the fact that these kids are survivors because they’ve HAD to be and that their dysfunction makes sense in the context of their circumstances prior to adoption. If I hadn’t read John’s piece and if I hadn’t reached out to Astrid and Jae Ran, the piece would have been much less than it turned out to be; an important reminder to me of how VITAL adoptee voices are in any adoption discussion.

HUGE thank yous to John and Astrid and Jae Ran!!!!!!

My back up plan if I didn’t get into school was to pitch a book about disruption because there is SO MUCH that still needs to be said. Like I would have loved to have been able to speak with adults whose adoptions as children were disrupted. I would have liked to visit a residential treatment center and talked to the therapists there. I would have tried to find a way to travel so I COULD sit on the couch of an adoptive parent who disrupted and see their pictures and see their faces when they talk about their kids. I mean, there is A LOT still to be said.

Anyway, that’s my anatomy of that article.

If you have questions from a writer-ly or an adoption point of view, let me know. I’m happy to answer them.

Query Tips

envelopes-insideI’m learning about queries from getting so many. When I’m back to freelancing, hopefully I can remember all of this. Want to know what I’ve learned? Ok, here you are:

–When those write advice columns tell you that you should read the magazine/web site before querying, they’re right. I get a lot of queries that clearly come from people who are shooting in the dark. Some of them are proud of this: “I’ve never read your magazine or other pregnancy magazines but I’ve been pregnant and think I have an interesting take on the subject.” Ummm, doubt it.

–Be specific when you query. I get pitches that are way too broad. I don’t mind it when I get this from a writer that I know and whose work I know. If they send me something that says, “Morning sickness, what do you think?” We can go back and forth and whittle it down to, say, “Morning Sick at Work” with tips for handling it. (This is a good idea actually, someone pitch it to me!) But if it’s from a writer I don’t know, I’m not really going to feel motivated to go to all the trouble working it out with them because they may not have the chops to do a good job on it. Now it’s fun to figure out topics with writers I know so go ahead and give me a great specific query and once you’ve done a really impressive job with that one, we can play around with your other article ideas. Also, if you send me a wonderful specific query that I’ve already assigned and you have good clips, it’s very likely that I’ll end up giving you another idea along the same lines. Basically I want to work with you but only if you show me that you want to work with me, too.

–Don’t waste your first paragraph. I don’t need to know your experience right up front; I want to know what you’re trying to sell me. And sell it, dangit, don’t just vaguely toss it up there and hope I have the imagination to see what a great idea it is. Again those writing books are right: Statistics are not nearly as compelling as an interesting, specific hook. I’d rather hear, “For the first three months of my pregnancy, I was throwing up in my office trash can and spraying room deoderizer because I didn’t want my boss to know I was pregnant!” than, “Did you know that most women experience morning sickness and since most women work, that must be really hard!” C’mon, you can see the difference, right?

–Your pregnancy history doesn’t mean that much to me. A lot of people finish their query with something like, “And I think I would be a good fit because I am pregnant now or was pregnant once.” I really don’t care. If you’re a good writer, it doesn’t matter whether or not you’ve been pregnant.

–Read the submission guidelines carefully. We don’t accept personal essays for the site no matter how compelling your story is.

–Watch your bias. I’ve had people rail against doctors or give me a conspiring wink about epidurals in their query. That just convinces me that you can’t see both sides of a story. I may personally be a pretty crunchy-granola person, but as an editor, my goal is to meet the information needs of our audience, many of whom have viewpoints entirely different from my own. Besides, you don’t know me. For all you know (well not really you, dearest blog readers), I could be a gung-ho, pro-epidural, homebirth sucks person. By the way, I have gotten some queries that would have insulted me back when I was knee-deep in my infertility. So watch it, folks.

–Include clips!!!! People don’t include their clips. I personally dislike attached clips because it clutters up my computer but I won’t hold it against you if you send them. I’d rather people go make a homepage or something with a link in their letter. If you don’t have professional clips, include something anyway. I know we’re a fairly low-paying market and although we have some hard-core writing professionals writing for us, we have a lot of newbies, too. I’m happy to hire newbies because I was one myself. If you’re a newbie without clips, just include something that proves you can string words together decently, ‘kay?

–Don’t assume your god’s gift to me. Confidence is fine but don’t act like you’re doing me a favor by pitching to me. Aggressiveness is a turn-off especially when you’ve never been published anywhere but your church newsletter.

–Don’t tell me that you would prefer that I came up with your article ideas for you. I’ve had several people write and say, “I prefer to work on assignment so why don’t you send me some article topics.” Listen, once we’ve worked together and found out that we’re a good fit, assignments are entirely possible even probable but if I’ve never even heard of you, I want you to prove yourself.

–Proofread your query! If you can’t spell or write a grammatically correct sentence in your query letter, I’m not going to hire you to write for me.

Whew! Thanks for letting me get that off my chest!!!

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