One-third-life crises happen.
Ever have one? I was healthy, single, in my early 30s, and working as a creative project manager in Seattle when mine hit. Everything was fine but fine wasn’t cutting it. So, I got busy, did a little self-reflection, took a few risks, tried out some new ideas, and by the time I was 36, had transitioned to freelance copywriter, budding actor and new resident of Austin, Texas.
I did my homework
Prepared what I could
Almost. The move was delayed when a routine mammogram, prompted by my mother’s recent non-invasive breast cancer, revealed microcalcifications in my left breast. I was diagnosed with atypical ductal hyperplasia (ADH), which isn’t cancer but is a red flag requiring mammograms every six months for two years.
I didn’t have cancer
For real this time
For the next three years, I embraced the warmth and romance of Austin. There were many attractions to discover, men to flirt with, plays to audition for, and tacos for every meal. There was also a vibrant creative community and before long I was providing copywriting services and building a clientele.
Life was good
Birds were chirping
Then this happened
In 2006, a month before my 40th birthday, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It was so noisy in my brain. Between the treatment decisions, self-imposed pressure to come out as a “survivor” and pick up the pink torch, and the slow, pot-holed road to acceptance of cancer at 39, I was overwhelmed. Add trying to find some kind of reason for the whole mess, especially since I already had my one-third-life crisis (my epiphany!), and my brain hurt. So I did what I always do in such a state: poured every frustration, fear, question, hope, jest, jab, plan of attack, and setback into my journal.
And wrote some more
A side effect of grief can be a book.
Throughout treatment and after my 2007 release into post-cancer life, a collection of essays took shape and the idea of publishing began to swirl. Eventually, the idea turned into a commitment, which would be repeatedly challenged for the next four years. A book requires focus and time. A book about cancer, or any adversity for that matter, also requires reliving hardship over and over and over — difficult when you’d rather think about anything else.
My imperfect approach was to balance manuscript development with living-as-I-go.
The more I travel
The more I travel
The more I travel
A blog came about too. I already had a website to promote my freelance copywriting services, a blog made sense. Naturally, it would feature posts about cancer. Except it didn’t. Part creative outlet, part writing exercise, a lot McSweeney’s rejects, my blog was populated with humor pieces instead—lists, imagined dialogue, funny things my Mom said, observations. My first post was in July 2007, three months after I finished chemo, and featured a list of Omen-inspired taglines. Of nearly 30 posts that year, only two were about my cancer. In 2008, just one. That was the year I began traveloguing. Talking travel came easily. Talking cancer, not so much. That’s what my journal and manuscript were for.
A book takes a lot. Developmental editing can help.
Would my manuscript have been completed years ago if I hadn’t traveled overseas or went to visit loved ones; if I’d skipped the happy hours, movies and walks around the lake; if instead of blogging I focused on my book instead? Probably. Would I trade those non-cancerly experiences during the early, tender years after treatment? Not a chance. Not even when I knew that getting back into the manuscript after an absence would be like trying to get to the pistachio nut inside an uncracked shell.
A luxurious conundrum, being well enough to choose when to work on your book
Despite my detours, I was committed to finishing the manuscript. I believed it could bring comfort to the newly diagnosed. By 2011, with input from generous friends, I had a complete, much-improved draft and not a clue as to what to do with it. Research and hearing an agent at a writers conference say, “books about breast cancer are a dime a dozen,” led me to question whether it was good enough — if I was good enough — to get it published. But not for long. That kind of thinking wasn’t helpful. But developmental editing help from Alan Rinzler was. If my book was going to have a chance, it had to be good.
Letting a master
Critique your tragedy
I was both queasy and thrilled when I emailed Alan my manuscript. I was having a man who worked with Hunter S. Thompson, Toni Morrison and a host of other important people, read a newbie’s first and very personal book. Being told I should start over, take some classes, stick to journaling, all crossed my mind as very possible feedback. But to finally take action and move this thing forward was exciting and worth the trepidation. I’d get nowhere if I didn’t try.
Doing it wrong, the key to getting it right.
Back and forth we went, Alan and I, until 2013, when my memoir manuscript was in solid-enough shape to shift focus. Specifically, Alan wanted to know what I intended to do “about getting the book in the hands of your many potential readers.”
I could have been doing it all along, building an author platform, building readership. Having this “proven reach to a target audience,” as Jane Friedman so aptly describes it, is essential when querying agents. A compelling, well-written story is nice but a compelling, well-written story that comes with a paying audience is better.
“But I didn’t set out to write a best seller,” I wanted to plead in defense of my late start. “I was writing to cope.”
Sometimes life happens out of order, but you adjust, refuel and merge back on course. For me that meant digging into platform, which can be daunting at first, but also creative, inspiring and fun. It also meant revisiting why I wanted to share my story in the first place and recommitting to getting my memoir into the hands of my readers.
I don’t know if it’ll be this year or next, self-published or traditional, but one way or another I’ll get my book out there soon. Until then, this blog and my Twitter feed will continue to feature posts related to cancer and memoir development, along with travelogues and humor, because life’s too short and I can’t help it.
You know, it’ll be great if people want to buy my memoir when it comes out, but the connecting, sharing and mutual encouragement that’s happening along the way, with people in and out of the cancer and writing communities, is pretty hard to beat.
Thank you so much for stopping by.