Last month I was contacted by a representative from the website WOW – Women On Writing ( WOW! Women On Writing Issue 40: The Fiction Writer’s Toolkit.) She wrote to inquire if I was interested in interviewing the author of a new book on breast cancer by Diana Raab. Before she turned to writing and teaching writing, Diana was a nurse. Her passion has always been journaling. Her professional focus has been to champion the healing attributes of writing. Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey is the story of her successful battle with breast cancer in 2001 and her diagnosis, five years later, with mutiple myeloma.
Today you can read my interview with Diana. Wednesday will feature an essay by her entitled “How Writing Heals”. On Friday I will publish my own review of her book. In the future I will try to incorporate more interviews with persons transformed by cancer.
Having been a nurse for over 20 years myself, I know that the experience of nursing has caused my own life to intersect at critical moments in the lives of my patients. I was wondering how your own background as a healer and as witness to human courage and suffering informed your experience as a cancer patient?
I could probably write an entire article on this subject, but the most important thing I learned was to take one day at a time and to live in the moment. I also learned about the mind-body connection and the importance of keeping a positive attitude.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of your memoir was your invitation to readers to recount their own illness experiences on paper. How did you formulate the idea for reader interaction and what kind of feedback have you received?
As a journaling instructor and nurse, it was simply intuitive for me to make this a self-help memoir. I have received very favorable feedback in regards to the journaling prompts at the end of each chapter as well as the appendices which offer kick-start ideas on journaling.
It was perhaps inevitable in this internet era of personal blogs that cancer (as well as victims of other illnesses) survivors would begin to share opening with the world the tale of their ordeal and reflections on how it has affected their life. My own blog, Being Cancer Network has catalogued almost 1000 personal cancer blogs. What observations might you offer regarding this phenomenon, both from the viewpoint of a fellow cancer traveler and of a proponent of the idea of journaling?
Perhaps with cancer more than with other chronic illnesses, the experience is frequently transformative. How are you a different person today from having had two primary cancers in your lifetime?
Being diagnosed with cancer is a riveting event. It makes you realize not only the fragility of life but the value of it. After receiving a cancer diagnosis, you tend to view life differently. One thing I realized is that in order to maintain my health it was necessary to remove all toxic persons from my life. I only wanted to surround myself with those who make me feel good about myself and those who keep my spirits up. As much as possible, I have removed myself from those who bring me down.
As I said in the last chapter of my book, “There is no doubt that having been diagnosed with two cancers in eight years has cast a new light on my life. My goal is not to let these health issues control how I live, but rather to allow them to add to it. I want to continue being productive and making my loved ones happy and proud. This is a choice that I promise to live up to.”
You have had the benefit of graduate education related to writing. My own experience in reading the accounts of hundreds of cancer bloggers shows that people from all walks of life and people without the benefit of formal training can often write with extraordinary eloquent and heartfelt candor. In that context how do you view the process of writing? and how do you mentor others who might think that they lack the necessary skill to journal?
Writing is a passion like any other passion. When you are passionate about something you are typically good at it. What I tell my students is not to write what sells, but to write what you are passionate about.
I have been writing since the age of ten when my mother gave me my first journal to help me cope with the suicide of my beloved grandmother. Writing has helped me heal through difficult times. The fact that I completed an MFA in Writing was only icing on the cake and a means to make me a stronger writer, but the passion had been there for a long time. Passion cannot be taught nor acquired, I believe you either have a passion for writing and reading or you do not. Journaling is another story. Journaling is typically not for publication, it is for personal reasons. Anyone can journal. Grammar and spelling don’t matter, nor does eloquent writing style. In either case, the more you write and read and pay attention to what you write and read, the better writer you will become. An analogy would be that just because you enjoy playing basketball, does not necessarily mean that you will be in the NBA.
For those who have difficulty starting to journaling, I offer journaling prompts, some of which are mentioned in Healing With Words.