Turning Rotten Lemons into Fresh Pages

The Sky Begins at Your FeetToday we have a virtual treat! Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg stops by on her WOW! Women on Writing blog book tour and you have an opportunity to win a copy of her book! So grab a favorite drink, put it in a safe place and your keyboard will thank you while you absorb a taste of Caryn’s memoir and how writing during and about yucky times can help us through it.
About The Sky Begins at Your Feet
This tender but humorous memoir chronicles Caryn’s tale of resiliency and love in the face of breast cancer. She braves breast cancer, the breast cancer genetic mutation and the loss of a parent by connecting with an eclectic Midwest community, the land and sky, and a body undergoing vast renovation. Along the way, she swims with stingrays in the Gulf of Mexico, searches for cream puffs for a Pennsylvania funeral, leads a group fighting to protect ecologically-essential land in Kansas, and helps students find their own voice in Vermont. In searching for a new definition of the erotic through our awareness of nature, this memoir illuminates how our bodies are our most local address on the earth. Read the preface.
Published by Ice Cube Books (April 2009)
Paperback: 229 pages
ISBN# 1888160438
About Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
Caryn Mirriam-GoldbergCaryn Mirriam-Goldberg received her doctorate from the University of Kansas and was recently appointed the Poet Laureate of Kansas. The author of four poetry collections she is certified in poetry therapy and has led workshops for many groups, including people living with physical and mental illness. In 2000, Caryn founded the Master’s level program in Transformative Language Arts, that focuses on the effect of written and verbal language on the community, at Goddard College where she teaches. Her writer’s guide Write Where You Are is unique in that it is directed to teenage writers.
Caryn co-founded Brave Voices with singer/songwriter Kelley Hunt to provide singing and writing workshops. Songs written by Caryn have been performed by the Kelley Hunt band both in the United States and Europe. Caryn’s musical talents also include playing the cello.
Along with her husband, writer Ken Lassman, and children, Caryn calls the countryside south of Lawrence, Kansas home. Find out more about Caryn by visiting her web site and her blog.
Turning Rotten Lemons into Fresh Pages by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg
Sometimes life gives us lemons, and sometimes rotten lemons. In any case, whatever challenges we face — cancer diagnosis, car break-down, children or parents driving us crazy — offer us ample material for our writing. Such writing can also help us sort out what we’re going through, how we really feel about it, and what choices we have in the situation. What’s more, just the act of writing can help us feel more alive, and that in itself can be refreshing, even healing.
In my memoir, The Sky Begins at Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community, and Coming Home to the Body, I wrote my way through a breast cancer diagnosis in which the bad news kept getting worse for a while, my father was dying of pancreatic cancer, and I was in the middle of raising three children with my husband, and working full-time plus.
The writing helped me put the cancer into perspective and also face the very real and mortal issues involved. Furthermore, the book itself keeps on giving. I just met someone who told me the story of a man finding the memoir in a waiting room of a hospital while his wife was going through breast cancer surgery. He found reading the book during that long wait helped me find greater strength and hope.
So how do we turn the rotten lemons into fresh pages? Here are tips:

  • Journal Close With No Pressure: When going through a difficult time, keep a journal or at least some paper within arm’s reach, and without putting pressure on yourself, open it occasionally, and simply write a phrase or sentence just to remind yourself later where you are now.
  • Write Into Hope, Not Fear: Studies by writing and health experts, such as James Pennebaker, show that writing into fear and anguish can actually increase fear and anguish, or aim your writing toward hope. Write a list of all you love in the world, and just pluck something off the list to describe. Write a description of yourself ten years from now, assuming that whatever you’re going through will be long over, and you’ll be fabulous. See what happens.
  • Steal a Line: Sometimes the best way to get to strong writing isn’t to start writing directly about your big topic, but to enter through the back door, sneaking up on your topic. A good way to do this is to find a poem, story, newspaper article, even a billboard that has a line that speaks to you, put that line down as the first line of your writing, and see what happens.
  • Don’t Push the Writing Before Its Time: I’ve found that often I need time and distance from serious illness, issues and situations before I can write about them. Don’t push yourself or the writing if it’s not ready. Treat the writing as wine that must come of age before you pour it out on the page. At the same time, it’s great to take notes.
  • Read Other Writers Facing These Rotten Lemons: It’s amazing how much our own words can be loosened free when we read other writers. While writing my memoir, I dove into other memoirs about cancer and losing a parent, all of which gave me more ideas for my own writing. Remember that when it comes to inspiration, the bookstore and library are your good friends.
  • Write Out of Sequence: Sometimes a writer needs to write what happened in the order in which it happened, and sometimes not. You can start with the middle of your story and then write the beginning. You can later cut and paste, or tell a story in flashbacks. In any case, when you turn on the tap of your writing, write what comes, and don’t worry about how it all fits together until later.
  • Suspend Judgment for First Drafts: The most important advice I can share, as Anne Lamott recommends in her book, Bird by Bird, is to write shitty first drafts. Put your inner judges on a shelf, don’t show the draft to anyone, and just write. If your judges are persistent, write first about them getting on a bus for a long roadtrip to Vegas, and then bid them adieu. Then write passionately and recklessly. You can always revise your words later.

Meryl’s Sour Lemons into Memories Story
I figure as host, I should set an example and open the comments with my own.
My mom had breast cancer. She found she had a tumor right before my wedding, and she told me in person when she came to visit me shortly after my honeymoon. I was in a new place for the first time in my life. Born and bred in Fort Worth, TX, I was a new bride who didn’t know a soul in Washington, DC. I had nothing to do. It was too late for summer school and I still had over a month before the new semester started.
I started journaling that summer, but I only had a couple of entries, and nothing for a year. It had a paragraph that Mom had a tumor that turned out malignant and her prognosis was excellent. I don’t think Mom’s situation ever hit me considering I was not with her. She recovered and that all happened 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve piled up on the journals. Sometimes I wrote lots and others, I went a long time without a drop of ink.
Then, my dad had a stroke in April 2007. And that was a different experience. Things looked dire for about a week, and he pulled out of it. I was in the middle of writing a book (Outlook Brilliant Pocketbook) that I had to finish in three weeks. I knew the publisher wouldn’t extend the deadline when it wouldn’t do it for another author of a book in the Brilliant Pocketbook series was in the hospital herself. He died the following December, but my book came out in time for him to see it. Enough about my story — it’s your turn.
Your Turn: Win Caryn’s Book
Share what comes to your mind after reading about Caryn’s book and her guest post. Maybe you’ve had a sour experience that turned into an inspiring or tolerable one. Or faced an illness that changed you or gave you a new perspective? We look forward to your comments with at  least 50 words please.
Random.org will have the honor of picking the winner.
Update: You have one week to comment for a chance to win. This contest runs through 11:59pm, Thursday, October 1.

4 thoughts on “Turning Rotten Lemons into Fresh Pages”

  1. Funny, when I was sick I didn’t think about writing a memoir I thought about writing a children’s book that would explain it to my children and their friends. It never got published and sits in that dusty drawer and most of my children are grown…I inserted a lot of “remember when we did this and I wasn’t sick” parts to it and it came out much happier and funnier than you would imagine for a book about illness. And it made me happy.

  2. Hi Meryl,
    I’ve found that as with most things in life, perspective matters. It would be easy to take a current tribulation and make it a central focus for why life is currently in “sucks” mode. I believe that when you look at things from that perspective, it brings more of the same into your life.
    I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve had very few real tragedies in my life. This means that I’ve got an even greater responsibility to not let the little molehills become the mountains I have to climb.
    It helps to keep my glass full of ice cold and refreshing lemonade.


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