Thursday, September 27, 2012

“Hey, Dwight, Let’s Do This”

As the author of “Still Standing,” I feel only modestly qualified to talk about writing a book.  While I am a writer by profession, I don’t deal in fiction or memoirs.  At least not until now.  The idea of writing something more substantive than persuasive pieces for businesses such as websites, direct sales letters, and the like gnawed at me for a long time.  When I met Dwight and learned his personal history, the deal was sealed.  His story had to be told, and I was the one to do it.

I am a 59 year-old man from New Jersey.  Dwight is a 29 year-old man from Mississippi.  Our experiences were different, our perspectives were polar opposites, and we both had trouble with each other’s the accent.  But we had this.  We had a desire to get Dwight’s story out as a triumph of hope over tragedy, as a tale of self-reliance over self-pity.  Dwight’s is a story of grit and determination, an uplifting message of finding joy and good humor even during life’s most dire circumstances.  The partnership made perfect sense to us.

“So, Dwight, are you ready to go to work and do this thing?” I asked. 

“I was just waitn’ on you,” Dwight replied confidently.  “I knew you’d come around.” 

And that, my friends, is how the book came to be.  For the next six months, I interviewed Dwight three times a week for an hour or two at a time.  It wasn’t always easy because Dwight kept getting ahead of himself.

“Slow down, Dwight.  You’re going too fast,” I chided.  “We’ll get there, but we have to stay on track along the way.”

I’d give Dwight homework assignments and ask him to think back, for example, to life in middle school.  I needed the details to help form the broader narrative.  And after months of talks and several hundred pages of notes, we finally got started.  We wrote the prologues together and then the first chapter.  Paragraph by paragraph, page by page, we knew the book had to true to in Dwight’s voice.   After all, it’s his story.  We chatted, grumbled at each other, and came to agreements on what to keep out and what to put in.  It was a collaborative effort every step of the way.  Every two or three weeks, I’d get another chapter done, and I enlisted editorial help from two educators, (my sisters, and Dwight, and we’d beat up the draft.  Then we’d do it again until we finally had it just where we wanted it.

Back and forth every few days with comments like: “Jon, you can’t say that.”  Or from my sisters, “Jon, we need to know more about Tamika.”  Or, “Jon, you already said that.  We’re not stupid.  You don’t have to say it again.”  In any event, the whole process was exhilarating, joyful, and mostly humbling.  It took about 16 months from the time of our first interview to the time of publication, and it was worth every minute of effort.  And now, to our great satisfaction, “Still Standing” has been adopted for use in numerous school systems and at a variety of rehabilitation centers across America.  We only hope it will keep growing from here.

Jonathan Praet

Saturday, September 22, 2012

“The Things Kids Ask”

As I talk about in some detail in my book, “Still Standing,” I spend a lot of time making presentations to kids.  At school gatherings, youth groups, boy and girl scout troops, church youth groups, and many more.  The kids are always fascinated, but they’re not sure how to deal with me.  Here’s this guy in a wheelchair telling kids to be responsible, to think before they drink and drive, and to understand that their actions have consequences.  Consequences like putting another person in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  But the presentations are never preachy, and I always try to make them fun.  Even funny at time.

The youngest kids, maybe ages 5-10, want to learn more but aren’t quite sure how to go about it.  They are seeing something new to them and don’t quite know how to process it all.  I often get questions from this group like:

“Do you know my mama?”   (One girl’s mother was in a wheelchair, so she thought I must know her.)

“How do you go to the bafroom?”   (It’s not always easy, but I manage.)

“Is it fun in the wheelchair?  Can I get one?”  (No, it’s not fun as a rule, although I can do wheelies.)

“How can you drive if your legs don’t work?”  (Great question.  I need special hand controls for the truck.)

“Can you have a baby?”  (Yup.  In fact, my first child, daughter Brailey, is due to arrive this December.)

The point is that I used to hate being the center of attention.  I hated having people look at me and then turn their gaze when I caught them staring.  Now I have a different view.  They’re trying to understand.  They want to know what it’s like to live this way, and they want to know how they should respond to a person with a disability.  I try to help them out.  I answer their stares with a smile and often start a conversation.   I explain that I do everything they can, I just do it sitting down.  Sometimes I’m a bit slower, but I can get it all done.  To my fellow travelers in the community of people with disabilities, I say don’t be shy.  Almost all of our able-bodied friends want to do right by us.  They want to understand.  They want to help where it’s appropriate.  It’s part of our job to teach them those things.

See you next week.

Dwight Owens

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Prologue to "Still Standing"

“That guy is driving way too fast,” I said out loud to myself.  The driver didn’t seem concerned about the pounding rain, and the big Chevy truck kept on coming.  “He’ll probably just pass me,” I thought, and I turned my attention back to the road ahead. 

BAM!  He crashed into the rear of my car, and both vehicles immediately swirled out of control - mine into the steep gully on Highway 84 where it stopped instantly upon impact with a tree, his ending up in a ditch on the side of the road.  I immediately passed out but regained consciousness just long enough to feel blood streaming from my mouth and had time only to whisper a prayer before passing out again.  “Please save me, God.”

Life can turn on a dime, and mine did just that in a matter of seconds.  It would be days before my family and I learned the damage … six broken ribs, punctured lungs, my liver lodged in my chest cavity, my back fractured in several places, and a severed spinal cord.  I coded twice shortly after the accident, and the doctors were ready to call my death.  But I came back.  Why?

We didn’t know for days whether I would survive or what kind of life I could have if I did.  I didn’t learn for a week that I would be paralyzed forever from the waist down. 

My name is Dwight Owens.  This is my story.

Dwight Owens