Interview with Diana Raab about Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey

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.

Diana Raab’s website ||| Diana Raab’s Blog

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.

Healing With Words, Hers and Yours

by Jerry Waxler

Breast cancer occurs with breath-taking frequency. It will strike one in eight American women in their lifetime, making it a present danger for every woman. To understand more about how that feels, I read Diana Raab’s memoir “Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey.” She offers the story of her own journey, detailing the emotional and technical challenges of being diagnosed with cancer, undergoing treatment, and surviving.

Cancer  is a strange way to face death, every bit as deadly as a bullet, but without the suddenness. When it strikes, we look back and realize with horror it has been building under the surface. After the diagnosis, cancer patients must continue with ordinary life, getting through each day with dignity, while death lurks in the wings. And even after the cancer has been eradicated, it is never really final, leaving its mark and requiring ongoing courage.

If breast cancer were to surface in a woman in my life, before now I would have been able to offer general compassion. Now Diana Raab has helped me tune in to the details of the situation. From the perspective of a person who has been diagnosed with the disease, she shows me the demoralizing effects, and also the courage, the community support, and the medical procedures that sustained her. (* see note)

For those readers who must cope with cancer, Raab offers some of the wisdom that helped her survive emotionally. Her most important tool, the one she loves and that has contributed to the title of the book, is her belief in the healing power of writing.

Throughout her illness, Raab wrote in her journal regularly, tapping into her heart and mind and pouring words on to the page. Much later, she decided to share her experience with readers, offering us a chance to grow along with her, witnessing her danger and her strength. For readers who are coping with cancer themselves, she includes writing prompts at the end of each chapter. The blank pages silently invite your words, allowing you to transcend the isolation and wordlessness of cancer.

Once you have written in your journal, you may desire to publish your story or you may not. Many aspiring memoir writers ask “why should I write my story?” While there are many reasons to consider, one factor to take into account is the value your story might have for other people. Consider the support  that Raab has shared with her readers, and then consider offering your own.

In an interview I will post tomorrow, Diana Raab shares more about writing and sharing this aspect of her life.

Diana Raab’s website ||| Diana Raab’s Blog

Note
Diana Raab believes so deeply in the value of journaling, she edited an entire book on the subject. ” Writers and their Notebooks” contains essays by a number of writers who share their habit of writing in a journal. The essays describe a wide variety of uses for keeping a journal, including self-development, finding a better writing voice, and developing material for publishable pieces. I highly recommend this book for every writer.

(*) Another excellent memoir about a woman who had to traverse these dangerous and troubling experiences was Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s book “Sky Begins at your Feet.” See my interview with Caryn by clicking here.

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.

Memoir interview about privacy, activism, style

Interview with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg about her memoir “Sky Begins at Your Feet,” Part 2 by Jerry Waxler

This is Part 2 of the interview I conducted with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg about her memoir “The Sky Begins at your Feet.” In Part 1, (to read Part 1 click here) Caryn shares observations about the spiritual and religious journey. In this Part, she discusses community activism, privacy, style, and other issues that may help memoir writers learn more about their craft.

(Note: Caryn will be checking in during the blog tour to read and respond to your comments.)

Jerry Waxler: During the period covered in the memoir, you are also very much engaged in organizing an environmental conference, weaving your activism about earth into consciousness raising about breast cancer. This is a fabulous double-value of your story. Do you see the book as a tool of advocacy for ecology work, as well as health?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I see the health issues as relating directly to the environment, and I knew this book very much had to be a bioregional book. By bioregionalism, I mean the tradition of learning from your community and eco-community how to live, how to steward your home place and be a good citizen, and how to find greater meaning and purpose in your life through connection to the land and sky. The conference was actually a bioregional congress, focused on bringing people together from throughout the continent to network, share resources, and inspire each other in living more fully in our home communities. I hope the book does inspire people to, most of all, learn more about their environment, and from that learning, develop a greater connection with their local land, which will naturally lead to the kind of advocacy and stewardship that creates enduring ecological change. I also hope the book helps people see not just more of the connections between cancer and ecological degradation and destruction, but between healing and finding kinship with the trees, fields, birds, skies and other aspects of our homes around us.

Note: For more about the bioregionalism movement, click here.

Jerry Waxler: How has this memoir been received in your ecology activist community?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: It’s been received very well so far, and next week, I’ll be reading it at another bioregional congress, this one at The Farm in Tennessee, so I’ll see more how it speaks to people in that community.

Jerry Waxler: I love the characters in your community. So many people reach out with compassion, to help you with food, with caring for your family, and of course the all-important emotional support. In the process of telling about these people, aren’t you to some extent impinging on their privacy? Many memoir writers are confused about how much to say, how much detail to include, whether to change names, and so on. How did you balance your friends’ privacy with your desire to tell the story of friendship and community.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: This was an issue I thought long and hard about, and basically, anyone who showed up more than once, I contacted when the book was in its final draft, and sent them a copy of the book to read, letting them know that if there was anything they couldn’t live with, they should tell me. Few people asked me to change anything, but I thought asking was the ethical thing to do. I also shared the final draft with all my doctors, my children, my mother and siblings. I worked hard in editing to remove any references to people (there were just a few) I had larger conflicts with because I didn’t want to use my writing in any way to play out those conflicts. Occasionally, when I did present something unflattering about anyone, I changed the name of that person and that person’s identifying characteristics.

Jerry Waxler: You went through a terrifying period, facing the loss of part of your body, and a profound alteration of body image. In the memoir, you have explained and explored this loss of part of yourself, in far greater detail than most of us imagine. What I’m interested in knowing more about is what it felt like to write about this profound relationship between flesh and life. What sort of processing did you do while you were writing about this impending loss? Was it traumatic to write about it? Did writing the memoir help you understand more or cope more or come to terms more with this loss?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I write through whatever life gives me, so I wrote through cancer, not always coherently, but writing helped me sort out my feelings and also helped me make what was happening more real. The writing itself wasn’t traumatic although I’m aware that we can re-ignite trauma in our lives sometimes if we write obsessively about such events (as researched in the work of James Pennebaker and others). Before I lost various body parts, I wrote to those parts of my body (and I wrote some about this in the memoir), using writing itself as part of the ceremony of letting go of my breasts or uterus or ovaries. For me, it’s very important to create ceremonies that involve writing and sometimes spoken words as a way to name the rite of passage, so yes, all the writing helped me come to terms with losses. At the same time, time itself is wildly effective at helping people, including me, make peace in such situations.

Jerry Waxler: In a couple of places in the book you use Flash Forwards. For example, you say “I had no idea she would be killed in an accident in 5 years.” The character had no way of knowing this from within her own Point of View. Stylistically, this raises an important puzzle for memoir writers. The Author, the person sitting at the computer typing the book, is older and knows so much more than the Protagonist, the younger one undergoing the experience. How did you steer between these two sets of knowledge? What can you tell us about the relationship between the Author’s POV and the Protagonist’s? How does the unfolding of the Protagonist’s Point of View in the story help reveal what the Author is going to know in the future?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I purposely wrote this book very much from the perspective of being in the future, looking back. Particularly with the big stories of our lives, I think the added perspective of the author in the present can help readers better understand the various ramifications and unfoldings of the story. Two pieces of advice that influenced me were from a poet, who once told me how much we need to let our experiences ripen over time until we can find the real essence of the story or poem that wants to be told, and my oncologist, who said however I felt about my cancer experience would continually unfold and change over time. Also, when telling stories in which mortality is a kind of character, I think having the perspective of time passing allows an author to go much deeper into the hard stuff — the terror and sadness, grief and confusion — without making the reader feel too overwhelmed.

Jerry Waxler: The book contains quite a bit of concrete information about the medical diagnosis and treatment. How do you see your role in that regard? While writing it, were you thinking about how it could help cancer patients and their loved ones demystify the technicalities of this journey? How has that turned out so far?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: I knew that I had to share at least some technical information because going through serious illness is often a technical journey as well as an emotional and spiritual one. I also wanted to demystify the genetic mutation discussion surrounding breast cancer. Because of fears many have about losing insurance if they reveal that they have the BRCA1 or other genetic mutation, it’s a difficult thing to talk about, and yet we’re only going to change the crazy biases of insurance companies by talking about things like this in print and out loud. I also was lucky enough to know I wouldn’t be dropped from my insurance although several of my doctors told me how careful they were in medical records never to write “BRCA1” but use a symbol instead so that the patient would be protected. I also find that people going through cancer, at some point or another, want and need to know about the technical aspects of their cancer; for example, is the cancer particularly aggressive or slow-growing? We get that information often from numbers on a page, and it’s difficult at times but important to understand these aspects or we won’t have the information we need to make the most informed decisions possible about treatment options.

Jerry Waxler: Are you reaching out to offer the book to that audience?

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: Given that one out of three of us will have a cancer diagnosis in our lifetimes, that audience is actually very large. Just about all of us have had cancer or been close to someone who had cancer, so yes, I did want to reach out to that audience, but this is also a book about losing a parent, finding strength in the land and sky, connecting with community, and making greater peace with living in a flawed, aging and still miraculous body.


Links

Click here for Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s website

Click here for more information about Caryn’s Transformative Language Arts Program at Goddard College

Click here for the Transformative Language Arts Network

Click here to visit the Amazon page for The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

This interview is part of the blog tour hosted by Women on Writing. To see Caryn’s Blogtour page, click here.

Memoir author speaks of spirituality, religion, and cancer

Interview with author Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg by Jerry Waxler

When Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg was diagnosed with breast cancer, she and her friends were busy organizing a conference to protect the environment. So her journey through doctor’s offices, chemotherapy, and surgery takes place against a rich back drop of family, spirituality, and rivers of community support. (“I have cancer, but I also have friends.”) She skillfully and generously shares her experience in the memoir “The Sky Begins at your Feet,” offering insights that expand my horizons about life as well as about life writing.

Caryn is also a poet, a writing teacher, and the founder of Goddard College’s Master’s Degree Program in Transforming Language Arts. In the following two-part interview she offers observations about writing this memoir, and suggestions that may help any memoir writer overcome difficulties on their quest to share their own stories.

In Part 1 below, Caryn offers observations about how she conveys spirituality, religion, and grieving. In Part 2, (click here to read Part 2) she talks about style, privacy, and some of the ways her memoir has touched the public.

Jerry Waxler: For many people, the two words “religion” and “spirituality” seem so different as to almost be opposite to each other. And yet in your view, you straddle the fence nicely between them. This is a powerful addition to the memoir literature I have read, because I know of many people who wish they could convey their spirituality but don’t know how to find the language. You are so eminently comfortable with the most intimate details of your own search for transcendence I wonder if you could explain how you came to be so comfortable sharing these intimate details of your life.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg: As a seeker and a writer, I find the two yearnings — to create and to connect with the sacred — to come from the same impulse: to feel as fully alive as possible. How to write about religion and spirituality wasn’t really something I thought much about; it simply happened because both spirituality and religion are vital parts of my life. I guess I see religion as one part of spirituality that’s institutionalized, and added to the institutional mix is community, group dynamics, group governance, etc., which can be messy but also beautiful. Last week when I went to Yom Kippur services, I had a moment of looking around and thinking how odd and amazing it was that I knew so many of the people around me from various parts of my life, but here — at our services — we entered collectively into the somewhat tribal, confusing and challenging practices of Judaism. I also found it wild that I shared some of the most intimate communal prayers with people, some of whom I didn’t share anything else intimate with ever. That’s the magic of collective spirituality: you can share profound moments with people who drive you crazy, people you hardly know, people you know from other contexts too. I’ve also always been Jewish plus. What I mean by that is that I’ve explored other traditions from Sufi dancing in my 20s through Buddhism in my 30s and 40s to Yoga today.

JW: You use a substantial amount of Jewish lore and practice in the memoir. Of course, not all readers have a background in these references, so it seems that the memoir takes a step into an interesting territory for any memoir writer who might ask, “How much of my unique background will be interesting to readers?” When you wrote the references to Judaism, did you worry that non-Jews would not understand it?

CMG: Some of my own spiritual journey through cancer has included Jewish traditions, myths and practices because integral to my story. At the same time, I tried to contextualize and explain references so that non-Jews would better understand them. Because I live in Kansas, where there is a very small Jewish population, I’ve also done readings from this book, and I find that people tend to understand the Jewish context. Some things, such as the story of Jacob, are well-known to many people, as is the tradition of a Bar Mitzvah. Other aspects I found that people could understand with a bit of reference. I wasn’t worried about this issue just as I don’t think Christian or Buddhist or Moslem authors would need to filter their spiritual experience when telling a story with spiritual aspects.

JW: Can you offer any advice to other memoir writers who wish they could authentically describe their own transcendent beliefs.

CMG: It’s like writing anything: you have to find your own truest words, dive into it, and surrender to what wants to be said instead of what you think you should say. At the same time, I think it’s far more effective to describe the big stuff of life — spiritual struggles, traumas and wounds, giant yearnings or losses — by entering through the backdoor. By that, I mean you can convey the depth of what you’re writing by aiming toward specific detail and specific moments instead of making pronouncements about what it all means. In fact, I think it’s dangerous to try to say what it all means too fast or sometimes at all. For example, I described the moment of my father’s death as surprisingly ordinary, and I told readers how I paced back and forth on the deck, what the sky was like, how my voice sounded when describing the moment I found out I would need chemo. Our sensory experiences — what we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch — are powerful tools for bringing readers to the vital and living emotions and realizations we find, which never happen in a vacuum, but always somewhere at some time, such as sitting in a lawn chair in early autumn and suddenly seeing a crow land on a dying tree, and knowing something new at that moment.

JW: I love the way you use the concept of “grieving” in the book. At one point you say you were grieving your loss of strength. Another time you say, “another part of me I sloughed off.” In popular use, the word “grieving” tends to be used for coping with the death of a loved one. You are using it in a broader sense here. Please say more about how the process of grieving has been extended to help you adjust to life through its various stages and changes.

CMG: There are all kinds of causes for grief in this life, and luckily, all kinds of causes for joy too, sometimes even joy and grief simultaneously. For me, it was important to name what I was losing, whether it was my breasts, my strength, my sense of humor, my father, etc. as a way to tell my true story. I needed to look at the loss and feel the grief because my life as continually illuminated how the only way out is through. I also realize that as I age — just as all of us — I will be losing things all along the way, such as the capacity to run down the street, or sleep eight hours straight (well, I already lost that one!), or get through a day without discomfort or pain, and certainly the speed at which I live my life and how much I can get done in an hour. That great poem by Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art,” states, “The art of losing isn’t hard to master/ so many things are filled with the intent/ to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” I also heard a novelist, Julia Glass, on the radio the other day say that all novels are really about how to go on with life in spite of whatever happens. I hope my memoir also points toward how to go on with life, and to find greater life in learning from whatever life gives us.

Links

 

Click here for Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s website

Click here for more information about Caryn’s Transformative Language Arts Program at Goddard College

 

Click here for the Transformative Language Arts Network

Click here to visit the Amazon page for The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg

This interview is part of the blog tour hosted by Women on Writing. To see Caryn’s Blogtour page, click here.