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The Transformative Power of Words

May 3rd, 2013

Recently I was thrilled to be asked to be the Keynote Speaker for the Brain Injury of Massachusetts’ 30th anniversary annual conference. I learned just days before the talk that it was a sold-out event. There would be more than 650 people in the audience.

Writing the speech was challenging because the audience is so diverse, including not only brain injury survivors, their families and caregivers, but also health care professionals: doctors, nurses, social workers, occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists. What message could I bring that would be relevant to such a disparate group?

I decided to talk about the transformative power of words. I started with a reading of the prologue from my memoir where I use the crack in the glass (of the drunk driver’s windshield) as a metaphor for the line that divides families’ lives in two: events before and after the brain injury. I talked about how writing the book didn’t feel very cathartic at the time: more like picking scabs off of healing wounds day after day. But ultimately it was a therapeutic experience. It helped me to process the myriad emotions the crash engendered—anger, resentment, frustration, disappointment—and to let go of these unhealthy emotions and hang onto the more hopeful ones like hope and strength and resilience. I quoted the writer Norbet Platt who said, “The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought. This in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.”

I talked about studies in which chronically ill patients rated their quality of life higher after being asked to write about their illnesses. Similar results were seen in prisoners given the same writing assignment. They rated themselves happier after having written. A Boston Globe article that came out the week before the conference reported on a study in which college graduates who were asked to write about a situation in which they felt powerful actually performed better on job interviews and were more likely to be hired than grads who didn’t write.

Then we did a little writing exercise of our own.

“Let’s see if we can empower ourselves,” I told them. “Let’s see if we can re-create that same sense of empowerment.” Then I gave them a short writing assignment.  “Finish this sentence: Today I am grateful for…”

And here is where my audience inspired me—transformed me with the power of their words. Survivors stood up and spoke about the love of family who helped them through their brain injury. Mothers spoke up about the miraculous gains made by their children despite dire predictions by professionals.

“Never give up on a survivor,” one implored.

Health care professionals who were also survivors spoke about caring for their brain injury patients.

“It’s like being given a torch and now I’m passing it on.”

So now here I was being inspired, lifted up, by the very people I had come to try to inspire. The message of hope and optimism I wanted to bring to them was being mirrored back at me in tearful but smiling faces. Their voices cracked. Some lost their places on the page. But their message was clear. We are transformed by the stories we tell and share. We are all moved by the power of words.

Watch One, Do One, Teach One

March 2nd, 2013

It may be horrifying for lay folks to learn this fact, but there is a mantra in residency called, “watch one, do one, teach one.” As an intern, I did not have the luxury of watching scores of intravenous insertions before I tackled my own. Lumbar punctures are done less frequently. If I had been supervised just once by my senior resident doing a spinal tap and had been deemed competent, chances are when the next one came along, I’d be supervising someone else doing one. It may not have always been literally one procedure under my belt before I’m teaching it, but it sure wasn’t much more.

That’s why it doesn’t strike me as strange or unusual that after publishing one memoir, I find myself teaching a memoir-writing class at my local adult education program. And after giving one key note speech, I feel qualified to teach a speech-writing class at Grub Street, Boston. I also have no problem teaching a workshop at the University of Iowa on creating a portfolio career in writing, even though my unpaid writing gigs still outnumber my paid jobs. And I’m lecturing doctors at Harvard about medical journalism even as I work hard to advance that aspect of my career.
Now, full disclosure, I have given many, many smaller speeches in addition to the keynote, and even though my paid jobs lag behind the unpaid ones, I still have dozens of publications to my credit. I’m not a total fraud. But it’s also true: just one memoir.

But there’s another saying in medicine: teaching is learning twice. So as I research my lessons and prepare my hand-outs for the classes and workshops I teach, I’m learning, too. I learned that when I was repeating those central elements in my keynote speech, I was using the rhetorical technique called anaphora. I had to learn the difference between direct and indirect dialogue before I could teach the students in my memoir-writing class. I was fuzzy on the precise statistics on physician burn-out before I started fact-finding for my writing University of Iowa workshop. And I didn’t know much about blogging software until I had to incorporate its use into my talk at Harvard.

All of this, I hope and believe, is making me a better writer. Watch one, do one, teach one may sound like so much chutzpah to non-physicians. But in the writing world, a little chutzpah may be in order. If JK Rowling had been discouraged by rejection and not believed in herself, we never would have met Harry Potter. Likewise Joseph Heller and his character Captain Yossarian. Both Catch-22 and The Sorcerer’s Stone were rejected before being published. All writers need self-assurance. We have enough critics and skeptics in our lives without being doubters of our own abilities.

So I will continue watching one (in the form of reading great writers’ works), doing one (by continuously working on my craft), and teaching one (by sharing what I’ve learned along the way).

What Have I Done?

June 26th, 2012

I was honored to guest post on Sarah Pineo’s wonderful blog “Blurb is a Verb.”

Memoirist Carolyn Roy-Bornstein asks: What Am I Doing?

Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a physician, a writer and a mom. Her dramatic memoir Crash comes out in a few short weeks. Reading her post, made me realize that as tricky as publicizing one’s fiction may be… a memoir comes with a host of thornier questions. Thank you for sharing this, Carolyn. –Sarah P.

I’ve had my “what am I doing?” moments as a writer. Writing my first book, my confidence waxed and waned without rhyme or reason. One minute I would believe in the importance of my memoir: I’m sharing my family’s experience of my son’s accident and subsequent traumatic brain injury. Educating the public about the dangers of underage drinking and drunk driving. Enlightening the masses about the trauma of hidden wounds. The next moment, I’m asking myself ‘Who am I kidding? Who will want to read this?’

Even as I secured an agent (or “achieved representation” as I’ve learned to say) and then landed a book deal, the doubts still lurked at the edges of my consciousness, ready to bring me to my knees. What if my editor rejected the final manuscript? What if she decided I can’t write after all? What if nobody buys my book?

But I never thought I’d have one of my “what am I doing” moments while being interviewed for my first profile in a glossy magazine.

Journalist Katie Lovett knocked at my door at exactly the appointed hour one unseasonably warm February day. She wore a short hot pink wool coat, a red Valentine pinned to her lapel. She looked astonishingly young, though I knew from reading her bio on-line that she had been at her current position for more than five years. She snapped her head up sharply when I opened the door, a tentative half-smile on her face. Was this the proper expression to present to a woman who has written a memoir of tragedy?

I invited her in, offered her tea. We settled onto the couch, sipping our Constant Comments. She kept thanking me for allowing her into my home and sharing my story. I kept assuring her that the pleasure was all mine. I wanted to tell my story. That’s why I had written a memoir after all.

Then the questions began. They started innocently enough. Benignly. Chronologically.

“Where were you when you learned that your son had been hit by a drunk driver?” And then, “Who was the person who told you?”

I recounted for her the events of that night. I elaborated with details about my son’s relationship with his girlfriend, the one killed in the crash.

But as the questions kept coming:–“How is Neil now?” “What is he doing?” “Does he need any extra academic help at school?”—I felt the familiar “what am I doing?” question bubbling up in my insides. Only now the question had morphed into a stomach-churning no-turning-back “what have I done?”

Neil has supported me throughout the writing of this memoir. He read and approved every word. Whenever I gave him a chapter of the book to read, I always cautioned him, “Now if you’re uncomfortable with this being out there, I won’t publish it.” Neil has always known he has had total veto power over any of my work that deals with the crash. Each time, he reads it and assures me, “No. You can publish that.”

But I still worried that maybe he doesn’t understand what it all means. I’ve published stories about him before for sure, but in specialized publications—medical journals for doctors like me and literary magazines geared towards mothers who write. I worried that once the book was out, read by neighbors and friends, that things would be different. That Neil would have second thoughts about being the subject of my memoir.

Now as I faced Katie Lovett’s seemingly endless barrage of questions, I had another thought. Maybe it’s me who doesn’t understand what it all means. Maybe I’m the one who’s not ready for all this to be happening. Maybe I’ve been so busy worrying about protecting Neil that I ended up kidding myself. Of course I thought long and hard before embarking on writing this memoir. But I thought I had it under control. I had an important story to tell. Not just about traumatic brain injury and drunk driving, but also about psychological wounds that are unapparent, the non-linear nature of recovery after trauma, and the disenfranchisement of certain types of grief. Of course I realized I would be opening up my family’s story to the world. But I realized it on an intellectual level. Knowing something in your head and knowing it with your gut are two very different things. And now here was a reporter. In my home. On my sofa. Delving deeply into my life. A life that I have readily offered up to the world.

Julia Fox Garrison, a young stroke survivor who wrote a wonderful memoir called Don’t Leave me this Way, read an advanced copy of my book and loved it.

“Now you are like me, an open book,” she told me.

And so I am. I realize this now on a deep and abstruse level, a level unknown to me as I sat scrawling words longhand in spiral-bound books, then typing them into ten-point Courier font at my computer. I know it now keenly, as I did not know it then, when I hung over Neil’s shoulder as he read, awaiting his approval, and worrying that he was not fully aware of where this all would lead. I realize this now concretely, tangibly, as I sit on this sofa staring into the fresh inquisitive face. I am an open book.

You can find Carolyn Roy-Bornstein on her website or on Twitter @CRoyBo.

When Can I Call Myself a Writer?

June 11th, 2012

I recently had the honor of writing this guest post on Beyond the Margins:

“Are you a writer?”

These were the first words uttered by our Advanced Fiction-Writing instructor at the Harvard Extension School one autumn evening several years ago. We students looked around at each other sheepishly. Shyly, we sized each other up. This was an advanced writing class, after all. Surely some of us must be bonafide writers. But no hands were raised. Finally, one of the men in the class spoke up.

“Well, I was on a plane once and the woman next to me asked, ‘What do you do?’”

He paused.

“I thought about saying, ‘I’m a writer.’”

He looked down at his lap.

“But I didn’t.”

Why are those words so hard to say? I am a writer. After all, I write. Daily. Hundreds of words at a sitting. I’ve been doing it for years. I’m in a writing group. Who joins a writing group if not a writer? My mailbox is filled with magazines on the craft—Poets & Writers, The Writer, Writer’s Digest—not to mention the weekly rejection letters from various literary journals. Surely the mailman thinks I’m a writer.

Maybe it’s our culture. In other cultures, first questions asked after introductions are about family. Who are your parents? Where are they from? Here in America, we place greater importance on our work lives, our careers. When people ask, “What do you do?” it’s understood that they mean “What do you do for work?” “How do you make your living?” Not “What do you think about every waking moment of your life?” (Though that may be the easier question to answer.)

The truth is I didn’t raise my hand in class that day either. For me, it would have felt fraudulent somehow at that point. Sure, I wrote. But I couldn’t be a writer. It’s not how I made my living. I hadn’t even been published yet.

It wasn’t until some months later that I got my first real validation that perhaps what I was spending so much of my time (and money) on was in fact more than just a glorified hobby. I entered a writing contest for short fiction and placed third out of a field of almost 8000 entries. It wasn’t publication, but it was evidence that someone else thought I had some talent. Someone whose job it was to recognize it. Someone who wrote for a living.

I began sending my work out to literary journals and slowly the acceptances trickled in. An essay here. A short story there. Winning the contest had given me the self-assurance I needed to at least think of myself as a writer (even if I couldn’t yet say those words out loud: I am a writer).

My resume grew, but I still hadn’t been paid for my work. Here in America, didn’t that still disqualify me from calling myself a writer in public?

With the confidence that contest gave me, I began sending my work out to higher-paying venues and surprised myself by actually getting paid for my work. With an expanded platform, I secured an agent and landed a book deal. Crash: A Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude will be published by Globe Pequot Press in September. Now I will finally be able to call myself not just a writer but an author.

Attitude is important. We may be what we do for a living, but we’re so much more than that. We are our goals. We are what we think about every waking moment of our days. That one writing contest just confirmed for me what I perhaps should have known all along: I am a writer.

The Meaning of Life

May 5th, 2012

     I drove an hour

and a half each way to give a pre-prom speech to the juniors and seniors at

Coyle & Cassidy High School in Taunton, Massachusetts yesterday. The idea

was that, as the mother of a boy, brain-injured by a drunk driver, I might be

able to impart some wisdom to these teens, share some lesson gleaned from our

difficult journey.

     I listened to Tom

Ashbrook’s radio show On Point as I

drove. His guest was Paige Williams whose article in O Magazine, titled “We Thought the

Sun Would Always Shine on our Lives”, detailed a horrific accident in which

5 of her sorority sisters perished over 25 years ago. With her to discuss “grief

out of season”, as the host called the loss of the girls, was a therapist and

grief specialist from Healing Circles, Inc.

     As horrific as

the story was (five sorority sisters killed on a charity walk when a hay-baler

plowed into them on Highway 6 in Mississippi,) what struck me most were the

listeners who responded, each calling in to share their own unique tragedies,

suffered at young ages.

     One call in particular

jarred. A middle-aged woman recalled an 11-year-old classmate who died of

leukemia more than 50 years prior. She didn’t even know the girl that well, but

her death somehow shaped the caller’s formative years and stayed with her on

some level through her entire life.

     “If even one

person remembers you for something you did with them or for them then that was

what the meaning of life would be about,” she said.

     I turned off the

radio at that point, my heart full. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. I

focused on the kids I would be speaking to in just a matter of minutes. I have

given this talk many times over many years. I relive for the audience how I

learned about the crash. I describe the days in the ICU, the months of physical

therapy, the years of depression. I try to paint a picture of Trista: her

intellect, her wit, her sense of humor, her smile, her grace. My mission, my

goal, is to discourage them from drinking and driving. To see that perhaps they

can have fun without intoxication.

     But as I pulled

into the parking lot, the caller’s words still echoing in my brain, I wondered

if I might not have another opportunity here. I wondered if the juniors and

seniors at Coyle & Cassidy High School might just have an opportunity not

to simply avoid tragedy but to find the meaning of life. If I could truly paint

for them a vivid enough picture of Trista, might they not remember her enough

to not drink, to not drive this prom season? And wouldn’t that be the same as “doing

something for her?” And if just one of these students did something for Trista,

wouldn’t they then come to know the meaning of life?


February 18th, 2012

     So I’m in this weird limbo-land: between finishing a book and the whatever-comes-next. That space between the exhale (Whew! That’s done) and the inhale (Eek!  What now?)

     It’s not that I don’t have projects lined up. I do. The Writer magazine assigned me a book review.  I have edits to look over for a JAMA essay coming out soon. I need to prepare for the writing workshop I’m teaching at the University of Iowa this spring.  I’m busy outlining my next book.  

     I guess more than the projects, it’s about routine. Writing a book, I was in it for the long haul. I logged thousands of hours of “ass-in-chair” time (Dennis Lehane’s term, not mine), notebook in lap, pen flying, words somehow landing upright on the page. I spent every evening typing hand-written notes from yellow legal pad paper into 12-point Times New Roman on my computer. I was on a roll. A day-in-day-out years-long roll. So how do I transition from that dailiness to…well, whatever this is?

     So maybe it’s not the projects or the routine. Maybe it’s more about immersion. For years, I have been absorbed in this one story. My story. It’s not the same as fiction, where I’ve lived with characters I now have to say goodbye to. My book is a memoir. My characters are my family. They’re not going anywhere and neither am I. But I’ve been absorbed in the telling of our story, the rendering of emotion, leading the reader by the hand through my world, painstakingly describing in excruciating detail the lousy hand we’ve been dealt and the way we’ve handled it.

     Maybe it’s not about the projects, the routine or the immersion. Maybe I’m just in a period of mourning. This dear friend I’ve spent every waking hour with for the last four years is no longer around. Not quite dead. But not part of my daily existence. Other people are reading her, looking at her. An agent, an editor,  a project manager, an advance reviewer.

     So maybe it’s jealousy. I now have to share my closest friend with not one other person or a couple of people but with the world. I have to share her with whoever wants to dance with her.

     Maybe it’s everything. The project, the routine, the immersion. I’m mourning. I’m jealous. Maybe that’s why this period of time feels so jumbled up to me. Because it is. It’s many emotions. It’s many processes, all banging up against one another in my exhausted, wrung-out brain. There’s got to be a word for this feeling, perhaps uniquely a writer’s. But don’t ask me to come up with a name for it. For now, I’m just too exhausted.

When Do I Pop the Cork?

February 6th, 2012

     I’ve had a bottle of champagne in my refrigerator for quite some time now. It’s been chilling ever since my agent called me six months ago with the news that he’d sold my book.

     But when do I pop the cork?

     I got my agent before I had even finished writing my memoir. He agreed to represent me based on the book proposal with its five sample chapters. I had another 15 already written: a good start but hardly a completed manuscript. So, his parting words on that congratulatory phone call?

    “Oh, and by the way, you’d better get writing.”

     No time for champagne now! I’ve got too much work to do!

     I finished the manuscript over the next three months. Was this the time to celebrate? I thought not. What if the publishing house didn’t like the final product?

     The first installment of my advance arrived in the mail. Hooray! Bottoms up? Not so fast. The second installment only comes when the revised manuscript has been accepted. What if that never happens? What if they hate it?

     I got my revisions back from my editor. “A lot to love and not a lot to re-work,” she said. Mostly just some re-ordering of chapters. Easier said than done, but I took her suggestions, moved words around, added new words, pressed send. Time for a bit of the bubbly? Not so fast. What will she think of the revisions?

     She emails me back. Loves what I’ve done. Now? Um. No. Better wait. I still have the copy editor’s suggestions to anticipate and incorporate.

     Today I did my first interview. A local magazine wanted to do a profile. Everything went well. But now I worry. Did I reveal too much? Did I come across as vain?

     I’m coming to realize there may never be a perfect time to celebrate. My literary ducks may never line up in a row. There will always be one more editor, one more revision, one more interview. We writers are a very self-critical bunch. We will re-write and re-work and re-think, always convinced that the perfect word choice is just a click away. Our outward self-confidence is tempered with an inner self-doubt that is ever present, sharing shoulder space with our muses.

     But I will keep my champagne chilling, waiting for that artistic perfect storm of luck and faith and gift.


Screaming Underwater

January 29th, 2012

     I am a reserved person by nature. I am not given to raucous outbursts or loud displays of emotion.   I am my mother’s daughter. She was a demure southern belle, of the collected variety. I have inherited her quietude.

     I was sitting with family on Scarborough Beach in Narragansett, Rhode Island this summer when I heard from my agent that we had a book deal. He had successfully first pitched and then sold my memoir CRASH! to Globe Pequot Press.

     “Shouldn’t you be screaming?” my sister-in-law asked me.

     And I was excited to be sure. After all, I have invested many years in this project. It has taken me four years to write the book and almost two years to sell it.

     But more than the time it has taken to bring the book to fruition, it is the emotional input that has taken the most out of me. And that is where this ambivalence comes from. Sure I’m happy to be a published author. But I’d never be an author if my son hadn’t suffered a traumatic brain injury. Yes, I’m proud of the book. But I’d give it all up in a heartbeat if I could give Neil back his girlfriend and his life.

     So on that beach that July day in Narragansett, I walked into the Atlantic Ocean, dove under a wave, and screamed, “I have a book deal!”

     Then I went back to my blanket and worried.

Going Back to the Well

January 24th, 2012

     This month I finished the revisions on my new memoir CRASH! The book now has a sub-title: A Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude. I like it. It captures that tricky-to-navigate space between gratitude that my boy is alive and grief for all he has lost.

     In many ways this is the most difficult thing I have ever done. Going through the crash in the first place was of course a challenge. And writing the first draft of the book was a great deal of work. But the labor of revision was more intense than I anticipated. I think that is partly because when my editor kept assuring me that “there is not much to re-work,” I interpreted that as “there is not much work to do.” Her main suggestions dealt with chapter re-ordering and the narrative’s timeline. She moved large chunks of the story around, then left it to me to hide the scars left from ripping whole sentences, paragraphs and chapters out of place. I had to part the waters like Moses, drop storylines in the wake, then calm the tsunami created by the plunge. It took hours of mental concentration, days of reading and re-reading passages, making certain that the order was correct. Making adjustments for the fact that what the reader initially learned in chapter 5 now isn’t revealed until chapter 10. Pages of new story had to be written to meld the new storyline cleanly. Under deadline, it’s been physically exhausting to log five, six, seven straight hours a day staring first at a blank page, then at a blank screen. (I write long-hand first, then type my words into the computer effectively doubling my work.) It’s been an unhealthy process at times. I’ve been skipping my morning gym time, afraid that if I don’t sit down at my desk right away, one thing will lead to another and I’ll find my time frittered away. I don’ take time for meals. I find myself asking, ‘now what can I eat with one hand so I can keep writing with the other?’ So it came to pass that on more than one occasion, I ate cookies for lunch.

     But it’s more than just mentally and physically taxing. I’m emotionally spent as well. Going back to the well day after day, re-living painful family memories opened fresh wounds on a daily basis. I spent one afternoon re-reading newspaper accounts of the drunk driver’s court appearances to get that timeline straight. I wept.

     It also so happened that January—this month when I was being asked to revise a memoir about an accident that left my son with a traumatic brain injury and killed his girlfriend—is also the anniversary of that crash. I tick off events as I write about them. January 7th. Nine years ago today I was just learning about the hit-and-run. January 8th. Nine years ago today Trista was being taken off life support. January 12th. Trista’s funeral took place nine years ago today. January 7th. Eight years ago today Neil underwent a second operation on his leg, ironically a year to the day after the crash.

     I’ve officially finished. I sent the revisions to my editor last week, two weeks ahead of deadline. The project literally has my sweat and tears in it and figuratively, my blood. At times, writing and bleeding have felt very much the same to me. Draining my soul of all life and feeling.  Leaving me empty. And cold. And still.

The Followers

November 24th, 2011

     Earlier this month I spent a week at Disney World on a family vacation. It was a very special trip. My 5-year-old niece Emma, after a brutal year of chemotherapy and stem cell transplants for her neuroblastoma, was finally cancer-free. This was Emma’s big Make-a-Wish trip and since Auntie was there at her bedside in Minneapolis for the beginning of her chemo, I was darn sure I was going to be there at the end of it.

     I was the early riser of the family so every morning, before the rest of the group awoke, I’d head to the lobby in the pre-dawn. There, I’d check my email, grab a cup of coffee and talk politics with the night staff of the hotel. It was a pleasant enough routine.

     One morning, in the middle of our political discussion, a fierce riot scene played out on the lobby TV, muted in the background. My debate-mate immediately launched into his views of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 99%. But we soon learned that it wasn’t an Occupy movement at all. Rather, it was some students from Penn State protesting the firing of their beloved football coach Joe Paterno, let go for not doing enough to help the alleged sexual abuse victims of former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. Now all these mornings in our political deliberations, my front-desk-man and I had not seen eye-to-eye on many things: Herman Cain’s alleged sexual dalliances, Mitt Romney’s waffliness, the future of Obama-care. But on this point we were aligned: where was the moral outrage at the predatory behavior of persons in positions of trust and authority in children’s lives? Why were these students placing the importance of college athletics over the care and protection of children? Did these students really understand the facts of the case or were they merely going along for the ride?

     On the last night of Emma’s Make-a-Wish trip, we were standing in line at Santa’s village so Emma could have a turn on the big man’s lap. The line was snaking slowly but surely through the aisles of an auditorium. At one point two young children started swinging from the railings which were decorated with Christmas lights. The tiny white lights shook and clinked under their weight. I watched as a pair of brothers spied the burgeoning mayhem. With a gleam in their eyes, they, too, reached for the top railing, ready to swing with their friends. Their mother, who had been deep in conversation with me, turned toward her boys ever-so-slightly. With a roll of her eyes and a dismissive wave of her hands she said in her deep Southern accent, “You just followers. You know that? You nothin’ but a pair of followers.” The two boys looked at each other. They got a very sheepish look in their eyes. Finally they let go of the decorated railing and resumed their place in line with their mom.

     Maybe those Penn State students could take a lesson.