by Jerry Waxler
Diana Raab’s memoir “Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey” interweaves the power of writing with the courage of facing cancer. The mix proves to be a model for any memoir writer, who aspires to turn life experience into words on a page, and then share those words with the world. In a previous post, I reviewed the book. In this interview, I ask Diana more about writing her memoir.
Jerry Waxler: You mention that your surgeon prodded you to write in your journal. That’s the first time I’ve heard of a surgeon giving this type of advice. What went through your mind when he said that?
Diana Raab: This was definitely not a typical request. The fact is my plastic surgeon knew that I was a writer and also knew that I was depressed following my surgery. He understood my passion for writing and how much I believed in the healing power of writing. I think it was just intuitive and very wise of him to make this demand of me. Indeed I was surprised when he suggested it, but at the same time, quite appreciative for his sensitivity.
Jerry: I know you edited a book about writing journals and notebooks (Writers and their Notebooks). Tell us about the history of your involvement with journals.
Diana: My mother gave me my first journal when I was ten years old after my grandmother committed suicide in my childhood home. She didn’t know of any other way to help me cope with the loss of my beloved grandmother who was also my caretaker. She told me to pour my feelings onto the pages of my journal. That seemingly innocent gesture set the platform for a lifetime as a writer and for journal-keeping. Later during my teen years, I wrote in my journal to help me navigate through a tumultuous adolescence. I then journaled when my children were young and then again to help me through my cancer journey, which resulted in my recent self-help memoir, Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey.
Jerry: How much did you journal during your illness, and how would you describe the emotional effect that resulted from your journal writing sessions?
Diana: While still in the hospital I journaled twice a day. Once home I journaled once a day and/or whenever I had the need. The mere act of journaling was very cathartic for me. I was home recovering from surgery on September 11th, 2001. It was a very difficult time for me. My emotions were bubbling over as I was dealing with my own personal loss and the loss to my country and the city of my youth. I speak a lot about this in my book.
I always feel better after expressing myself on the page, during both good and bad times. My times with my journal are precious. It is one way I take care of myself, in the same way I go to the gym or for a beach walk. If you journal on a regular basis, not only do you document the events you are going through, but you also document the feelings, sensations, sights and sounds that you might not recall at a later date and this in and of itself is very healing.
Jerry: When you were writing in your journal, had you decided by then to write a book about the experience?
Diana: Even though all of my eight books began on the pages of my journal, I typically don’t write with the intention of publishing a book. It just sometimes ends up that way. Because of my background as a registered nurse, it is intuitive for me to write a combination memoir and self-help book like Healing With Words.
Jerry: I feel you were courageous to write about cancer. Naturally there are privacy issues, and many of us feel shame and vulnerability around illness in general and cancer in particular. When you weighed the pros and cons of coming forward with your story, what was the deciding factor to go ahead with it?
Diana: I feel no shame. Vulnerability, yes but I believe that’s healthy.
After my first cancer diagnosis I had no intention of writing a book. I kept a journal for my own healing purposes. I did not want to write another breast cancer book because at the time there were so many books on the market. I am also a very private person and I preferred not to expose myself in such a public way. The actual impetus for writing Healing With Words happened five years later when I was diagnosed with my second cancer diagnosis of multiple myeloma. My friends and colleagues convinced me that I had a story which must be told. People were inspired by the way I handled my cancers. I never wanted sympathy or to be a victim. The story was simply that I had two cancers and just wanted to move on with my life. I did not make cancer my life.
In fact, once I was interviewed and was asked if someone was to write a book about me, what should it be called. My sister-in-law, Serena had the best response. She said it should be called, “Sometimes Up, Sometimes Down, but Always Forward.” This best describes me.
Jerry: After a cancer diagnosis, death stalks you like a murderer, and yet ordinary life waits for your attention every morning. It’s like being on the razor edge between life and death. What an enormous experience for anyone, and as a memoir writer you somehow had to put it into words. What are your thoughts or advice about turning this dizzying balancing act into a memoir?
Diana: I have been plagued by two cancers in five years and the diagnoses have completely riveted my life. I decided not to make cancer my life. I appreciate life and treasure it. I also want to teach others to do the same and to become empowered by journaling.
Jerry: Even with the profound danger and life threatening situation of cancer, I know many people who still might stop themselves from telling their story. People who could be sharing the most amazing courage and insights say “What’s so special about me?” What would you tell a person who used this argument to stop themselves from writing their story?
Diana: Only do what you are compelled to do. What I tell my students is that most often memoirists have a story which they don’t necessarily want to tell, but they have a burning need to tell. I believe people should write, not necessarily to become published but just for the healing power of writing. The decision to publish can come later. In the same vein, you should not write about what you think will sell, but what you are passionate about.
Jerry: You don’t write much backstory from your life. What were the pros and cons of talking more about your past? Were you tempted to say more about your past, your childhood for example, or your career?
Diana: Healing With Words is my second memoir and deals primarily with my cancer journey. My first memoir, Regina’s Closet had more of the back story dealing with my childhood. Typically a memoir is about a slice of life with a theme, and not about an entire life like an autobiography.
You might also be interested in knowing that both these memoirs were part of my thesis for my MFA in Writing in Spalding University’s Low-Residency MFA Program.
Jerry: Even though I am not a poetry reader, I felt your poems gave me a window into your heart. Please say a little about your interest in poetry, how writing it affected you, and what went into your decision to include it in the book.
Diana: I began writing poetry later in life. Basically I turn to poetry when I am overwhelmed with emotions and feel the need to be succinct and when I am pressed for time. I wrote a lot of poetry following my surgery, because I spent a lot of time sleeping and poetry seemed to fit into my program.
More memoir writing resources
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.