In her new book, Winded: A Memoir in Four Stages, Dawn Newton writes about living life to the fullest after she was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Her new book is available now from Apprentice House Press.
Dawn recently talked with Rose City Reader about her book, memoir writing, her health, and mindfulness:
How did you come to write your new memoir Winded?
I’d been a practicing writer and college instructor for years, focusing primarily on fiction. I had a handful of short story publications and an even bigger handful of rejections for a novel I’d written. Shortly after my fall semester of teaching began, I experienced a series of events that eventually lead to a cancer diagnosis. I took the winter semester off work to adjust to my treatment, and I began journaling about my days and my apprehension about my diagnosis. I think if you have writing in your bones – and I’d developed the itch early in life, arguably during elementary school – you just go to writing as your therapy or your way to understand things. Up to that point, I’d focused primarily on fiction in my life, but I’d also been a writer in more mundane ways, writing drafts of thank you notes, scripts for difficult phone calls, and instruction manuals for babysitters. I’d never been a dedicated keeper of journals, but that winter, I started writing in one journal, filled it up, started another one, and just kept going.
You write unflinchingly but with tenderness about your cancer and your struggle with depression. Was it difficult to tell such an intimate story?
I like that phrase – “unflinchingly but with tenderness.” For me, the writing or telling of the story was different from the publication of the book. I am a straightforward person and talk honestly about a lot of things in my life to close friends and family. The first-person voice telling the story in most sections of the book tumbled out easily, as if I were talking things through with family members, friends, or my psychologist. Much more challenging was the idea of publishing these personal observations and struggles. I worried a lot about revealing too much about family dynamics and intense emotions, especially because a lot of people see my calm exterior and don’t realize that I’m rather intense on the inside.
On the other hand, I’ve struggled so much with depression over the course of my life that once I was diagnosed with cancer, I felt a strong urge to come out of the closet with my depression. That idea – coming out of the closet – filled me with both relief and with some trepidation. My biggest fear: Did I whine too much? Did I not take responsibility for my actions? I am quite hard on myself, so once I told the story, I needed to perseverate about whether to publish it.
Who is your intended audience and what do you hope your readers will gain from your book?
The intended audience is anyone who has ever suffered from depression, cancer, or a chronic illness as well as individuals close to those who’ve had that experience.
In terms of what I want readers to gain, initially, I don’t think I had an agenda other than a deep need for understanding. At the most basic level, I wanted to speak to a large-scale audience with the plea for understanding of one person’s story about parenting with depression and then cancer. Now that I can step back from it a bit, I think it is also a story about economics and how difficult it is to negotiate the world if you don’t have the right tools. My mother and father didn’t know much about getting a college education because they hadn’t gotten one themselves. But when I talked about being a writer, my father kept urging my sisters and me into computers. We were living in the late seventies, and he was so prescient about what was to come with computers. Unfortunately, I wanted to write. Thus, one of the key lessons I’ve learned is about the difficulty of being or becoming an artist if you’re raised in the working class.
A second lesson I learned is that in any sort of art, only a small percentage of people are going to “make it.” Which means you need to find a reliable day job that you can have for years, so you can secure reliable health insurance as well as some sort of retirement plan. And that’s ultimately where I settle, in terms of pinpointing a message that I’d like readers to gain -- all my experiences in being an artist and just a plain citizen lead me to this bolus of frustration with health care. I don’t want to be the person who speaks the dark, disillusioning message about the world not being a fair place, but in many ways, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere in the world of American economics if we don’t recognize that health insurance or the lack thereof traps everyone, whether it’s the General Motors employee who stays in her job for 20 years because she knows the union will negotiate to get her family (particularly offspring) the best health insurance possible, or whether we’re the family of the cancer patient who doesn’t have the insurance to get the radiation necessary for extending survival, or whether we are the family of the late-twenty or thirty-something who takes her life because she’s got depression-based neurochemistry in her brain and doesn’t have the kind of job that allows her to seek out mental health treatment. So, I want to encourage readers to stay in touch with their capacity for empathy, whenever they can, so we can support one another. And we all need to appreciate the moments whenever we can.
Some people may shy away from a “cancer memoir” because they fear it will be unbearably sad. Yours is sad, but not unbearably. Can you give a little explanation of the treatment you get and your current situation?
Thank you for asking. One of the other soapboxes I occasionally climb onto is the one about how living with metastatic cancer is not the same as being in remission. Since there is no cure for most of the metastatic cancers out there, there is no remission. You get to live longer, but you are still getting treatment, generally. I take a generic version of the original drug I started on, Tarceva. The generic is called erlotinib, and I take 100 milligrams every day. It is a tolerable drug, although it has side effects that can create complications. For example, I have the “Tarceva rash” on my face. I took a stronger antibiotic than usual in the couple of months leading up to my book launch to help clear up the rash, but after the book launch and reading was over, I went back on the milder drug, minocycline, and the rash has re-sprouted pretty intensely. Thus, I am Cinderella without the slipper and the nice dress again. Avoiding the mirror.
I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer because I originally had metastasis to the bones. Those spots are not currently active. However, every three months I receive CT scans to check on the lungs and bones. Every year or so, I get an MRI. The reason for the MRI is that the brain is one of the places to which lung cancer often metastasizes. I went for five years taking the daily pill before I had a significant finding on my lung scans; I then had stereotactic body radiation for a growing spot in my lungs in February of 2018. The oncologist’s goal is to keep the disease localized. But any mystery spot on my scan is fodder for more testing. I recently had to undergo a colonoscopy because of a shadow that showed up on my colon in one of my routine scans.
At present, I have a few questionable spots in my lungs, one of which appears to be growing. Even though I get a bit of a reprieve from worrying until my next appointment in February, my oncologist has already mentioned the possibility of stereotactic body radiation again early next year. It’s relatively painless, so no sweat, right? Except how many people can’t have this treatment because they don’t have the right health insurance, or any at all? And having these treatments and this worry of what’s coming next takes its toll on any type of personality, whether one has a tendency toward anxiety or depression or not. I just turned 60, and I have been telling people that with all the drugs, tests, side effects and anticipatory worries, I’m more like a 70-year old. It’s been great to have seven years on a drug that usually gives people 18 months, don’t get me wrong. But I am weary.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the experiences you describe or the writing process – that most surprised you?
From the pure perspective of learning, I loved learning about writing memoir, and about my own limitations in working with that genre. In many ways, I probably learned how to write non-fiction essays before I learned about writing fiction. But I got a degree in writing fiction, and I spent the bulk of my early adult life studying it with various teachers and reading, reading, reading. I love writing dialogue, and although most of my fiction is quiet and not too talky, “scene” is a basic staple of writing for me in fiction.
But with non-fiction, or, in this case, memoir, I found that I avoided writing in scene, or at least the kind of scene that uses dialogue, which I refer to as “active scene.” I didn’t want to imagine dialogue from the past. I don’t judge anyone for doing do; I understand that with memoir, since so few of us can remember word for word those past discussions or arguments, we have to rely on our imaginations to fill in some of the details, preserving the basic remembered flavor or main emotion of a given scene. And yet, I found it difficult to do, especially since I wasn’t writing about the distant past but about events that were unfolding quickly.
I read a lot of memoirs, but I also read a couple of books about memoir that made me more comfortable with the sparse dialogue in my book. I learned a lot from Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, but I feel like I got “permission” to go with less dialogue from Sven Birkerts’ book, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. Like Gornick, Birkerts asserts that the memoirist “serves the spirit of the past, not the letter.” In his presentation of various memoirs and types to examine, he also discusses “lyrical seekers,” focusing on Woolf, Nabokov, and Dillard. I latched onto that label. I am not particularly poetic in my writing, but I allowed this label, “lyrical seeker” to give me permission to move away from narrative scene with dialogue to discussion or sometimes just description and imagery. Birkerts provided an appellation, and whether it’s accurate or not, I grabbed it to describe my approach and decided I didn’t have to work so much in active scenes.
What non-medical activities or resources have helped you the most since your cancer diagnosis?
One of the practices that my psychologist introduced me to as we dealt with my relentless depression is that of mindfulness breathing. I learned about it in conjunction with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), but also as a separate approach to well-being in general. I purchased The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, and started using the CD that went along with it, which happened to be narrated by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I fell in love with his voice. I’d included an essay about him in my memoir which I removed when I realized it was merely a plagiarized portion of one of the CD tracks along with a joke about the seductiveness of his voice.
But truthfully, the thing about his guiding style I was most struck by is the way he works with the depressed person’s tendency to be self-critical. He emphasizes repeatedly that you can’t do mindfulness incorrectly. This kind of affirmative support is huge for the depressed person who has the tendency to feel incompetent. I’ve talked to so many people who had the same apprehension about meditation that I did: you must practice, practice, practice, and do it in this one right way. Zinn debunks that idea. And I think that’s why “mindfulness” is more appealing to me than “meditation” although they might be viewed as the same. In addition to the Zinn materials, a friend also gave me Being Well (Even When You’re Sick): Mindfulness Practices for People with Cancer and Other Serious Illnesses by Elana Rosenbaum. It’s extremely helpful. I also do yoga classes when I can, to augment the mindfulness. I sing with a church choir, and I dance around my house from time to time, usually to Motown.
Are there other memoirs, either about people with cancer or other memoirs, you recommend?
There are two significant memoirs about cancer that I have NOT read, although I will someday. I was already writing my memoir when the book When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi came out. I didn’t want it to affect my writing, although I was obviously drawn to it. I bought it and made my husband read it, which he did for a book group discussion at his work. Then my daughter sent me "One Day," the Nina Riggs piece from The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying in the NYT Modern Love series, saying, “Mom, this is like something you would write.” I think about Paul Kalanithi and Nina Riggs often, especially when I’m not being appreciative of my “extra time.” I read Valerie Harper’s memoir I, Rhoda just after it came out. There is only a chapter on her cancer, but I have Googled her over the years and took it hard when she passed away this year; I believe she, too, took Tarceva.
As for other memoirs, I have read several of the mainstream stories; one of the not-so-mainstream is White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine by Janet Sternburg, which I found powerful and humbling, with its mental health component. My interest in depression also led me to Jill Bialosky’s History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life and Darin Strauss’s Half a Life. And although it is more classic nonfiction than memoir, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption reads like a memoir, and I think everyone should read it. The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson and Hunger by Roxane Gay provide pain, wisdom, and crucial reflection. I hope to read Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day next; I heard her speak once, and I loved her honesty.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
Thank you for asking! On November 26, my 60th birthday, my family held a fabulous book launch, public reading, and birthday celebration at my church. It was one of the most memorable events of my lifetime. I was so touched and overwhelmed. In 2020, I have some readings and library events coming up in Michigan.
- Wednesday, February 19: Reading at Schuler Books in Okemos at 7:00 PM
- Saturday, March 14: Sit’N’Sign at Saturn Books in Gaylord at 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
- Thursday, March 19: Reading/Talk at East Lansing Public Library at 6:30-8:00 PM
- Saturday, March 21: Talk at Capital Area District Library in Holt at 1:00 PM
THANK YOU, DAWN!
WINDED IS AVAILABLE ONLINE, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOK SELLER TO ORDER IT.