Lessons from Anne Lamott

words

This summer, as I finished working on the proposal for my memoir, I took breaks to listen to a recording of Anne Lamott’s talk at Book Passage University at 2019. With my kids in school and dinner not planned yet and laundry piling in every hamper, I swallowed hard when she said this:

“What we spent a lot of the class on before was why people couldn’t be expected to write all that much YET, but as soon as the husband retired, as soon as the last kid left high school and moved out, as soon as they move to the Russian River…and we would always say ‘Thank you for sharing. You won’t write then either.'”

Unwittingly, I’ve taken this to heart in the last four years, dragging myself covered with dusty words and moldy habits back into a writing practice. I’m not as disciplined as Anne, who insists we all need an hour a day, but I’ve been solidly thrashing the cobwebs off my voice at least a few times weekly for years now. I’m about to turn forty-five, and to show for my lifetime of writing words, I have a lovely small collection of bylines which you can (*should*) read, a completed memoir manuscript, a completed book proposal (agents, reach out to me, please!), and a few hundred dollars.  Continue Reading…

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It’s Here

wind

Several weeks ago, I promised to honor my own work by being honest about how proud I was of it. I’ll be honest: I’ve never been more proud of something in my life:

Friends, I was published by The New York Times.

And, more importantly, it’s having just the effect I wanted. I’ve received messages on Facebook and via email from parents who are grateful to see their own worries and emotions reflected in my story. They feel less alone, less crazy, less guilty, because they, too, struggled to get their children fed, to be heard by doctors, to be seen by the world as more than someone failing their family.

That’s the power of telling my story. That’s the power of pushing, as I did, through ten rejections from this publication, through years of honing and rewriting, through researching and re-reading old medical charts and trying to understand the trail markers along the walls of the hospitals and grocery stores and the crumbs on my kitchen floor.

I’ve been working on this story for years now. Every time it’s lifted by the wind, more people tell me they see themselves in it. Every time I tell them I’m writing a book about it, they ask me to tell them when it’s done.

I know this: You’re not alone. I’m not alone. My manuscript is finished. I’m querying agents today.

Tell your story. Tell it again.

With every step closer to the end of these trials, I grew angrier that Sammi was still not eating well. The days of endless chopping, sifting, washing, mixing and running to the store for obscure ingredients, all in the service of keeping my tiny daughter from disappearing, were wrecking me.

After nearly a year, every banned food had been added back into Sammi’s diet and her esophagus looked inexplicably perfect. The doctors threw up their hands in surprise. No one understood it; no one tried, lost as they were in the celebration of this first child healed by diet alone. Given six months reprieve from diets and endoscopies, I sank into a seat at my kitchen counter and stared at my stove in disbelief.

Around me, my community celebrated. We were feted at restaurants, friends’ houses, and in our own home, where I pushed my labeled containers of arrowroot starch and dairy-free “milk” powder to the back of the cabinet. “She’s better!” people cheered, but I watched her, still worried. She didn’t seem “better” or even different from when we’d started.

She often said the food was coming back in her mouth…

from Feeding My Daughter in The New York Times


This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post hosted by Kristi of Finding Ninee, with the prompt “when it comes to waiting…”

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What I’m Learning: Part Three

what-im-learning-part-three

“Writing teaches us awareness. It teaches us to pay attention, to savor the moment. It’s like that great Henry James line — a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost. Writing teaches you to take yourself seriously and to take life seriously. Scribble down whatever blows your mind. Whether you went to India or whether you were in the express line at Safeway, this thing got your attention so you scribble it down. Then you read other people who are doing the same kind of stuff and you think ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m going for.’”

These are the words of Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, when she participated in a conversation with other TED leaders in NY in 2017. Of course, she’s right, especially the part about the other people writing the “same kind of stuff,” especially the part about taking life seriously, especially everything.

I’ve been reading as much carefully chosen, lyrical and narrative writing on medicine and health as I can stomach over the last year. How do these writers do it? How do they sustain a story that includes clinical information and ugly, scientific words, for the length of an entire book? Most importantly, how can I do this? I’ve written about several of these books in previous blog posts: Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight and Gavin Francis’ Adventures in Human Being in one post; Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus and Henry Jay Przybylo’s Counting Backwards in another. I have more to say about others I’ve read, and I’ll do that in future posts, but I’ve decided to dedicate a full post to the book I read, breathless and all-at-once on a five hour flight.

I’m talking about the book that everyone told me to read, once they knew what I was writing. I’m talking about Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire. Continue Reading…

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Being a Child

being-child

More has been written about Atul Gawande’s book Being Mortal than on most other books on medicine and health, combined. It was reviewed in the New York Times, The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and dozens of other newspapers, magazines, and other publications large and small.  Its study of how the medical profession handles the process of dying — whether that process comes at the end of a full life or far too soon — has changed the national narrative. Doctors are coming around to the idea of supporting patients on their own terms as the end draws near, a concept which, to many, seems antithetical to their oaths. After all, are they not charged to “do no harm?” Gawande’s Being Mortal forces the discussion and redefinition of “harm.”

In an early chapter of the book, he writes that there are two kinds of courage. “The first,” he says,  “is the courage to confront the reality of mortality—the courage to seek out the truth of what is to be feared and what is to be hoped when one is seriously ill. Such courage is difficult enough, but even more daunting is the second kind of courage—the courage to act on the truth we find.” As he shares the stories of his own patients — choosing between risky surgery and an uncomplicated but speedier end; finding ways to maintain autonomy as they age; managing varying levels of discomfort while remaining lucid and cogent — it is clear that all the scenarios where his courage to “act on the truth we find” are predicated on the first courage to “seek out the truth of what is to be feared.”

In other words, there can be no action toward healing without first determining how his patients define healing. Continue Reading…

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What I’m Learning: Part Two

what-im-learning-two

 

As I wrote last month, I’ve been trying to read more book-length writing about medicine as I work on my own memoir of my daughter’s years of misdiagnosis and medical intervention. I’ll continue writing about the books I read on the subject, both for my own records and for the benefit of anyone looking to find inspiration for their own story, encouragement from those who understand, and knowledge to help themselves and the people they love. In some cases, these books have educated me to the brink of tears; I didn’t know, I thought more than once, learning the reasons why my daughter behaved the way she did in a range of hospital environments and states of illness and recovery.

Knowing is a huge source of security for me. Even as I’ve been recovering myself from a moderate concussion, learning more about how the brain does its healing and rebuilding is soothing. I always wanted to understand the mechanics of the diseases with which my daughter was diagnosed — how they responded to different stimuli, how they could progress, how they moved or grew. It has never been enough for me to be told “here, take this and it will help your headache;” I want to know why it will help. I want to know what the effect on my body might be and how long it might take and the reasons for this medication over another.

It is in this vein that I read the books below. How and why are my favorite questions. Continue Reading…

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