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March 09, 2023

Should You Write A Cancer Book? #2
Writing Mentors


A Chronic Dose
Laurie Edwards wrote a great post today about mentors on her chronic illness blog A Chronic Dose. An excerpt reads: “Persistence is a huge component of success in any field, but having people who are willing to share their time and expertise is, I’d argue, just as valuable. For as long as you keep evolving personally and professionally, I think you never outgrow the value of a mentor.”

For the second post in my ‘Should You Write A Cancer Book?’ series I want to look at the issue Laurie raised of mentorship and writing.

Confessions of a Novice
Many authors of young adult cancer books were journalists, editors, or freelance writers prior to their diagnosis. But what if you are thinking about writing a cancer book and have no background in the field of writing or publishing? How do you learn to write? Who are your mentors?

I was a choreographer when I was diagnosed with cancer at age 27. As an undergrad, I had taken one semester of creative writing from a sweet but utterly unconstructive professor. To this day, that class is the extent of my formal writing training. Yet, a few weeks ago a large sized publishing house just released my first book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide To Cancer in Your 20s and 30s. Many mentors have gotten me to this stage in my new writing career, some more obvious than others.

My Big Three
1. My public high school English teacher Mrs. Kogut was an old fashioned type who wore a wool skirt suit and heels to work everyday. She docked one percentage point off of our papers for each grammatical or usage error. Everyone hated her. I ate her class up. She taught me the value of rules in writing.

2. My Dad and Strunk and White go hand in hand. My dad gave to me as a Chanukah present one year Strunk and White’s book The Elements of Style (glamorous huh?) My dad is a mechanical engineer. He is interested in efficient and sound construction, and latched on to a Strunk and White dictum: omit needless words. This is my top writing mantra.

3. Michael Denneny is a 35-year veteran senior editor from St. Martin Press, whose real life experience backed up the mentoring advice he gave me. The rejections my agent received from the first few publishing houses on my manuscript for Everything Changes could have been used as endorsement quotes on the book jacket: “Gripping stories.” “Excellent writing.” “Could not put it down.” Always followed by, “I’m sorry our publishing house cannot take your book. Our sales department feels that cancer does not sell.” Michael Denneny is responsible for getting published the first books ever written on HIV and AIDS. Following his lead, I never gave up on my mission to get one of the big publishers to believe in the need for, and the salability of, a guidebook for twenty and thirty somethings facing cancer. Michael and I were right. Many Barnes and Noble and Borders are selling my book faster than they can stock the shelves.

Writing Chops
Formal training is something missing from my resume– MFAs in Creative Writing or Masters in Journalism were not in my schedule or my budget after my cancer diagnosis.  Working in the vacuum of self-education often feels freeing because I don’t know what or who I’m up against: ignorance is bliss.  At other times, I’ve needed to grab a mentor because I’ve felt lost without a map.  In upcoming posts in my ‘Should You Write A Cancer Book Series’, I’ll investigate other ways to brush up our writing chops. Until then:

Have you ever formally studied writing? Who are your writing mentors or inspirations? If you do not have any writing mentors, where would you look for them and who would you ask? Are there any bloggers or authors of books on writing who you consider your mentors?

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  1. laurie edwards Says:
    March 10th, 2009 at 5:07 AM

    Hi Kairol,

    Thanks for mentioning my post. I enjoyed reading this and in many ways, it speaks to my main point-whether you have “formal” training or not, with a compelling idea, mentors to support you, and persistence to keep going in the face of rejection, many things are possible! I can relate; not everyone saw the value in targeting a book on chronic illness to young adults, when in reality so many young adults in this country live with it. Sometimes all it takes is the right person believing in you at the right time…

  2. Garnet Says:
    March 11th, 2009 at 7:50 PM

    My mother is my #1 writing mentor. She had her PhD in English, which pretty much makes me an honorary Masters in English, I think. Really, though, mom raised me by reciting her favorite bits of Shakespeare’s tragedies while preparing dinner. Or playing a game called “Who Wrote?” where she’d name a book title and I was to guess the author from a handful of her standbys: T.S. Elliot, James Joyce, Saul Bellow, and more (I was 5 when we started playing this game). Or, later, letting me edit and, often, grade her English 122 students’ crappy essays. Through all of this and more, I learned to appreciate and *pay attention to* American and English Literature, language, grammar and spelling. She always wanted to publish a book but never got around to it.
    Mom passed away two weeks before my cancer diagnosis.
    Ever since I have been blogging to keep friends and family abreast of my and my husband’s…well…perseverance through cancer. Immediately, dozens of people were commenting on my blog along the same lines as, “You are a great writer!” and “You should really publish your story someday!”
    So, while I was in Houston over the holidays (2008-09) receiving daily proton radiation treatments (Denver is where I call home), I finally decided to get busy and write! I have been in touch with “a friend of a friend who is in the publishing business” and I also have a rough idea of how I want my book to unfold.

    I’m enrolling in a creative writing course at the community college where I recently earned my Associates Degree in Early Childhood Education (enter cancer — quit preschool career — redirect new goals). It’s just a community course but I can really use it to stimulate my creative juices…think of other things to write about than just myself or cancer!

    So as of now, mom was (and, in a spiritual manner, is) my writing mentor.

    My dad has always been my Lifetime Mentor (when I was 12 he made me look up the word “mentor” in the dictionary and committed, from that day forward, to always be my mentor in addition to my father).

    I have a strong and loving support system but I’m not sure they really qualify as “mentors.” But they are there and they encourage me to keep going, listen to me when I’m angry, drive me to treatments, research the net with me, etc.

    As far as living people who are knowledgeable in the field? I currently have no one.

    Which brings me here to you…………..

    Would you be interested in and comfortable with being my mentor in writing and getting published? I am totally uninterested in competing with you in this genre of cancer books. Rather, I’d like to build my steps and skills from your own experience and knowledge in getting this book published! You have already offered me some helpful ideas in managing my attention span problems and such. I’ve become very interested in what else you may have to teach me!

    Maybe you’re busy or maybe you feel under-qualified for the job…

    I am only now just getting to know you through your book, this blog and our Facebook messages so I don’t really know what your day-to-day life is like and if you even have time or energy to be such a mentor to me. But when I read this post I felt strongly that you were speaking to ME! Which, in turn, inspired me to ask you to be my mentor! :)

    Think it over and get back to me at your leisure…you know where to find me!

    Thank you for the stimulating post!

  3. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    March 12th, 2009 at 12:18 PM

    I’d love to share with you what I have learned. Thanks for asking. Let’s talk!


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