A few years ago I was given a mini sabbatical. I applied for it because I had collected about 30 stories written by other physicians in workshops a colleague and I offer. At the end of each session, I invited participants to give me what they had written with the expectation that maybe I would put them together with my stories into a manuscript for publication. Fewer than a third gave me their stories and I had them transcribed and then started to work with the authors to edit and expand them. By the time I was granted the sabbatical, I was ready to explore the meaning within all of the writing, mine and that of the contributors. I wanted to organize a coherent work. In my view, sabbaticals should also provide breathing room for rest and for space where new creativity can surface.
The workshop we offer opens with a discussion of relationship centered care and some tools (mindfulness, narrative, self-awareness) and has a writing reflection where participants write about how they have been affected and changed as people (in their personal lives, not their doctor lives) within a relationship with a patient. The sessions then have sharing of the writings with a focus on reflective listening. We offer these to resident physicians, medical students, and seasoned clinicians locally and nationally.
I knew the project had worth. Physicians who have taken the workshop tell me their lives are fuller after going home and finding opportunities to spend some time sharing what they have learned from patients with those same individuals. My patients have always been excited about the project and ask me weekly where they can buy the book. I shared the concept and writings with many people, most of whom were not physicians, in two writing workshops, Write on the Sound two years before my sabbatical and the Healing Art of Writing as the kickoff to it. That was 2010.
The summer of 2010 freedom was cut short by some family needs, but I was able to identify the main themes and see a form to the work. During the next year and a half I continued to pull it together, writing new material, editing, working with contributors, and putting out feelers for an agent, all of this in those little cracks in the weeks and months that were already overloaded with family and work. A few vacation weeks found me with my laptop in a local coffee shop writing and editing.
By the winter of 2012 I had a rough draft of the entire manuscript and knowing I would be heading to Hedgebrook that fall, I was able to take a deep breath. Three weeks would be mine to bring this project closer to completion. I wrote about Hedgebrook in an earlier post; what it added to the quality of the work is immeasurable. I finished editing over the next months with a goal to find a home for it through the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and their annual conference. My hopes grew when a story from the manuscript, “The Caregiver,” was a finalist in the short non-fiction category. The conference has Pitch Sessions, where writers get 4 minutes per pitch with up to 6-9 agents and editors (from publishing houses). I was excited to share this work with as many as I could.
Picture the scene: a big ballroom type space in the hotel. Along the back wall there are between 25 and 30 agents and editors sitting in one row facing the doors, one long table in front of them. Each has a chair across the table, facing the editor or agent. At the gong, about 150 people enter the room and form lines in front of the person they desire to pitch. A bell rings. All of the firsts in line go and sit in a chair and pitch their work. At four minutes, the bell rings and the next person in each line goes to the chair. If you just pitched someone, you can go to the end of a different line. At the ninety minute mark, the session is over.
At the end, I had seven people asking for the manuscript and the book proposal, a many paged document that speaks to the work, its audience, its competing works, the publicity and marketing plans and more. Hopeful for a home, I got those materials to them within a few weeks of the end of the conference. I am still waiting to hear from all but one.
Everyone has told me how much harder it is to find a home for a book in this market than for a paper. They are right. I have many publications in journals that are research and narrative. This has been a trial in patience. Finding time to move this project along is challenging. Keeping in touch with the contributors and hoping they do not lose hope adds another layer. When does patience become inertia?
What surprises me the most is the sense of responsibility I feel. I am a person entrusted with a very large parcel of human truth that should be shared. Is that a ridiculous and hubris filled notion? I opened each pitch with, “When was the last time your physician shared with you what you mean to him or her?” The universal answer was “Never.” Knowing we matter in any relationship, that there is always reciprocity, is important for all to hear. We recalibrate healing relationships when we teach patients that they are giving and not just receiving and when we teach those who care for patients to remember that they are also beneficiaries.
This is what I carry with this manuscript.
Feeling like a peddler of some elixir, I need engagement by someone with the capacity to distribute it. I worry that I am somehow not selling it well enough and I fear that no one with that capacity will really understand. It is hard for me to hold. Lately, I have a lot of shoulder pain. I believe it is where the weight sits squarely, the dynamic tension between the need to be patient and defining the alternatives.