Nina Gaby

Essays, art, and healthcare


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Action plan. Writing about health care.

photo-66For today can I just write a blog about writing a blog? Of course I can. I’m the boss of me. Except that I started writing another piece today, one I realize could be considered controversial and should only see the light of day under deep pseudonym in the AARP magazine backpages–so I feel less the mistress of my own freedom than any thinly veiled braggadocio might suggest. That piece, the one you will likely not read, is about the atrocities of getting old in the changing workplaces of an ageist society where you are unappreciated as a still fierce force to be reckoned with. Instead the piece reads more like a Human Resource reportable incident than a blog post and do we really want to go there? If you do, message me discreetly.

So anyway, in the spirit of positivity, let’s talk about a new project instead. This March I attended the annual conference “Writing, Publishing, and Social Media for Healthcare Professionals” at Harvard. I admit it was daunting to spend time with two hundred medical experts and hearing their pitches for what could easily become the next medical blockbuster. We met with agents, editors and publicists and attended three days of lectures on such topics as “How to Get Your Message Out in Today’s Changing Media Environment,” “Narrative Writing in Healing: The Power of Stories,” and “Publishing is Changing the Way Medicine is Practiced.” Participants left the conference all charged up with action plans and brand new twitter accounts. I left geared up to do…something. During the workshops I made a pretend pitch to write a patient-centered handbook, titled something like So How Was Your Week?, which would explain, in a conversational Anne Lamott-y tone, what to expect from your psychiatric encounter. I practiced and pitched it and got good marks for my delivery to a panel of a dozen agents and editors and the aforementioned two hundred others. No agents swarmed me for a book deal, nor did I really want one. My handbook just didn’t have the punch of, say, revolutionary non-pharmacological ways to beat the common headache forever or how one surgeon brings the dead back to life or the slam dunk memoir potential of impoverished illegal immigrant cures blindness (maybe I embellished a bit here) What I really want to do anyway is find ways of talking about how we feel about doing health care, how do our stories matter in the schema of Obama-care and litigation and insurance insanity? I’ll never be an Oliver Sacks or Atul Gawande, I’m just a worker on the front lines. But what if stories like mine and those of my colleagues could shine a light on the complexities of today’s health care and create better communication with patients, families, colleagues, legislators? What if we could promote health care by making our process more transparent? What if we found words to support each other during this process? Working on the front lines can be a lonely and misunderstood endeavor. Our stories have great potential to heal and I want to talk about ways to do this.

So in the positive spirit of staying close to home and writing what you know, starting in May I’ll be working with the marketing and communication team at my local hospital to do some interviews and write some blogs and connect with my colleagues and patients to do the same. Stay tuned. In the meantime here are several collections with beautiful narrative, moving examples of the genre.

Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide, and Feeling Blue edited by Amy Ferris, Seal Press 2015.

Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience, edited by Jessica Smock and Stephanie Sprenger, She Writes Press 2015.

Same Time next Week: True Stories of Working Through Mental Illness, edited by Lee Gutkind, InFact Books, 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

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Publishing: Level Three (what you don’t want to think about at Level One)

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When we are writing our hearts and minds out (Level One) we just think of the page and perhaps a fantasy or two about publishing (Level Two). Today’s post is abbreviated by all the work that needs to be done once that fantasy is realized. Getting it out there is a lot of work. Level Three is a full time job. OK, back to work.


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ONE DOG LIFE

Today I just want to write about my dogs. I should be blogging and twittering according to the people who talk about author platforms. My book’s official publication date is today. I just want to think about how things are strung together. Not how I am supposed to be paying attention to my social media presence.

Today is also town meeting day and as new writer Matt Sumell has said in his NPR interview of last week, “Bad choices make for good writing.” We made bad choices and now we live in a place that has a town meeting on the first Tuesday in March, which is my publishing date and the day we will put our dog down. I wrote the book because it was a way to make sense of the outcome of our bad choices. In my book’s acknowledgements I thank my dog for getting me through, “my loyal assistant,” I called him. “No one can feel dumped for very long with a Golden Retriever by her side.” My dog has cancer. The chemo got him through to my publishing date.

The friend who gave me the book that I have chosen to read at this time has cancer. The book is Abigail Thomas’s Three Dog Life, a memoir of her husband’s traumatic brain injury, ensuing dementia and death. Last summer a writing instructor told me to read Thomas’s Safekeeping, so I read that instead. Now my friend’s blood work isn’t so hot and my dog is dying and another friend has cancer. I may get to meet Thomas in Atlanta this April through another friend who contributed an essay to my book. The book that officially comes out today. So it makes sense that I am now reading Three Dog Life, waiting for my life to soon be a one dog life. I know I will not lose my moorings but the more rope I can tie around things the better. This is grief.

The friend in Atlanta writes about how to write about grief. Mostly instead of writing I am watching television, opening and closing both my book and Thomas’s book, and wandering about the house eating snacks which I share with both the healthy dog and the dog who is dying of cancer. I cooked him hard boiled eggs. I share my Milanos. I bought him a new toy. We are up much of the night as he stares at me and I pet him and tell him thanks. I am angry at my own fatigue even though I know that’s ridiculous. My breathless cough has been around as long as his cancer, now. Both of us breathing in unsteady rasps. We are loud and annoying. My husband can sleep through anything, which is good, as I cannot stand to see him cry. At 3:35 AM Amazon sends me a list of the 100 memoirs to read in my lifetime. If Three Dog Life had been on the list, as it should, I might have collapsed from the weight of so much synchronicity. I’m glad my husband sleeps through this quiet agitation. The rest of us, healthy dog, sick dog, and me, are in and out of the house in the below zero temperatures, because the sick dog can’t remember that he has just been out, and the healthy dog is just excited that there is so much activity. The healthy dog has stopped roughhousing. The vet would be glad of that, she has been worried about the sick dog’s platelet count. Not that it really matters, now. But the healthy dog instead places a paw over the sick dog’s paw and lies down quietly next to him. He is no longer fighting for the sick dog’s toy. He sleeps on the sick dog’s bed, probably for the scent, as the sick dog only lies on the hard surface of the floor, although most of the time he just stands and stares at me, his front legs too far apart, like an old man who is trying to keep his balance.

A suggested reading list:
Safekeeping Abigail Thomas
Three Dog Life Abigail Thomas
Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women Nina Gaby, editor
Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss Jessica Handler
Making Nice Matt Sumell


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Honing In, back from Iota Conference of Short Prose

 

Nina and two contributors to "Dumped" – Penny Guisinger and Judith Podell, on the porch of Prince Cottage, Campobello Island, IOTA Conference

Nina and two contributors to “Dumped” – Penny Guisinger and Judith Podell, on the porch of Prince Cottage, Campobello Island, IOTA Conference

 

The nine-hour drive back from the Iota Conference of Short Prose last night became more wearisome with each mile. Metaphors abounded – a mile is like a sentence, each small town a paragraph, each visual transition a small piece of prose. With each random thought becoming a brilliant brief essay in its own right. You probably know what I mean, trips home from excitement – the hospital after having a baby, driving home after a good job interview, dinner with friends, a gallery excursion, a hike, a shopping expedition – your brain fills with ideas and plans for the next big (or little) thing.

And then you are back, and slowly you fill with things of daily life, not so exciting. The things you forgot. The things you left undone. I always leave half my stuff in the car, looking like laziness on the surface, but actually another metaphor.

My manuscript for Dumped: Women Unfriending Women was left untouched and behind schedule. The days were filled with foggy views of the ubiquitous Atlantic Ocean, driving between New Brunswick’s Island of Campobello where the conference was being held, to Lubec, Maine, through the customs each time. Lubec, a movie set whose pastel and dilapidated buildings became paragraphs in themselves. And the conference where two of my anthology contributors – Penny Guisinger, organizer of the conference, and Judith Podell, became actual three-dimensional entities. Not just paper and screen anymore but flesh and voice.

Our faculty: Charles Coe whose poems about forgiving his parents escorted me back to childhood, Suzanne Strempek Shea whose tender enthusiasm made that child fantasize crawling into the backseat of her car and falling asleep, and then there was my faculty, Barbara Hurd, on whose mind I developed an unapologetic crush and threatened to make a photo of her into my screensaver. Like a stalker who wants to keep her with him always. It was funny in the moment. Now I wonder if I should delete that. Even the very private and elegant Hurd found it humorous after the first moment of terror…. but that’s what happens at these conferences. We are distilled into small working pods for that magical iota of time, wondering how we will go back home and write alone.

The days were filled with reading and workshopping our small pieces – after all, that is what “iota” means: a very small amount, bit, speck, mite, scrap, shred, ounce, scintilla, atom, jot, grain, whit, trace. It all became much bigger than that.

We wrote about the larger world in miniature, shifting the lens within a small frame from the personal and tiny meaning to the universal. Within the next breath. Paring word count. Stripping away excess. Might I be allowed to be corny and say that we lifted the fog on our words? Yes, it is my blog and I am still ever so slightly within the experience, and possibly well over word count.


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A PENANCE. A BLESSING. A DEADLINE. A guest blog on SHE WRITES PRESS.

[SWP: BEHIND THE BOOK] [SWP: BEHIND THE BOOK] 20130418-105222.jpg
POSTED BY NINA GABY ON JULY 14, 2014 AT 5:30AMVIEW BLOG
In anticipation of writing this blog post for BEHIND THE BOOK, I immediately sat down and wrote a whole craft essay instead. More of a memoir, actually. About waitressing. It really did apply, at least to much of this process. I wrote about being “in the weeds,” an old restaurant workers’ term for being too busy to think about anything except for the rush, about just needing for it to be over and going home with your greasy pockets bulging with tips. And “In the Weeds” will make a great craft essay one day. But this needs to be more about today and this process with a hybrid publisher, this very first rodeo on my own, and the complicated experiences that pushed me towards editing and publishing Dumped: Women Unfriending Women.
As organisms, we tend to respond adversely to pain: it makes us wiggle around and eventually move in some different direction. The details of my own experiences with being dumped by friends over the years are the subject of my essay in the anthology. As I tried to make sense of this dynamic, I began to talk about it a lot, had begun to publish essays in a few anthologies myself, some articles and short stories (I had become a real writer), and everyone said, Wow what a great idea, do a book, yeah, call it “Dumped,” that’s so awesome. I was becoming impatient with where my life as a writer could go. I was about fifty-nine years old at the time, and on the precipice of old age. I had also written the first draft of a novel about the same experiences I was writing about in Dumped, but fictionalized (and funnier) and a collection of micro-prose. The writing had probably saved my life, as well as my opening a studio and doing some visual art, and having my career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner to fall back on when our life kind of went to pieces. A huge lesson in all of this becomes the contrast between who stands by you, who doesn’t, why, and what the lasting effects might be. In my case, I kept writing. And thinking about all the other women who had these stories to tell.
The comedian Jonathan Winters once said “I couldn’t wait for success, so I went ahead without it.” I knew Brooke Warner from her days at Seal Press, where I had published a couple essays and had talked with her about another idea, a proposal I ultimately abandoned. I remembered her as skilled and enthusiastic. I hired her as a consultant/coach on Dumped. Through Brooke’s connection to another editor, I was introduced to an agent who was interested in my proposal. This was encouraging to me, a novice, and probably kept me going. But the agent needed famous writers as contributors to my collection if she was going to sell the idea. I was impatient. I had good writers–not famous, but really good. Then I got a couple of famous writers, but by this time, Brooke and I had the conversation about her press. At first I hadn’t understood how it worked (on some levels I’m still trying to figure it out), but it seemed like I was climbing up on the wave of publishing’s future.
As I wrote on my blog site: “Did I dream of the traditional route? Getting on the train to Manhattan to lunch with my agent and strike a big advance with a major publishing house? That image also has me in white gloves, nylons, and a tight-waisted suit, much like the one my mother would have worn when she accompanied my father to do just that when I was a little girl. And if I focus on that, I might just end up too old to even get on the train without serious help.” I signed on with She Writes.
In addition to renegotiating how we view publishing, I then had to renegotiate the “power” differential. I was now an editor. I posted a call for submissions to Dumped in Poets and Writers; I went to a conference on creative non-fiction in Oxford, MS and met several women who are contributing and one who has offered to write my foreword. A dear friend gave me a list of writers from her MFA program. I stalked a famous writer on a new book tour for permission to reprint one of my favorite essays of all time. I tried stalking a couple writers at AWP but the weather had grounded them elsewhere. I was disheartened by well-known women who would never get back to me. I was heartened by people who helped out in so many different ways. I got together with women who I thought had dumped me only to share our opposing perspectives. I stayed far away from others. And then I had to really be an editor and reject work. Yeah, I had to reject work. Me, the oft-times-rejected, had to reject. Me, dedicated to giving new writers their first chance. I’m a pro at my day job, setting boundaries all the time. But this is different and maybe the hardest part.
The hardest part except for time. We do not, but we should, anticipate the power outages, the cataract surgeries, the computer problems, the sudden injury leaving our back too twisted to sit at the computer. Problems at the day job that might require shopping for a new interview outfit. The death of a friend, then another, leaving us too breathless to focus. Enough time goes by and we will have to re-experience the holidays, throw in some Seasonal Affective Disorder, another ice storm. Terror. Lots of things get in the way. But to be so busy with something? A penance. A blessing. And now a deadline.
I take solace in the words of Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon who wrote in the May/June Poets and Writers about the birthing of an anthology, “Labor of Love”: “It’s just way more work than you can imagine. Even if you imagine a lot of work, it’s more.”
My focus today? I envision a beautiful book in a pile at AWP next March on the She Writes Press vendor table. Next March, the other side of the weeds.