Writing through Heart Disease with Carolyn Thomas

A Woman's Guide to Living with Heart Disease: my blog-turned-book!

By Carolyn Thomas

Part Two: Writing the Blog-Turned-Book

After two copies of my book contract were duly signed and returned to JHUP, I bought myself a new laptop to replace my ancient MacBook Pro in anticipation of starting this important project. I’d loved that old computer dearly despite its one perverse flaw: the “o” no longer worked on the keyboard. You would not believe how many words contain the letter “o”.

I knew that I’d need a visual outline of my 10-chapter draft Table of Contents to easily refer to for the year ahead. A big foam core poster fit the bill, propped up on my dining room table, covered with Post-its destined to be endlessly rearranged. It made for a unique decor accent.

Like many of my blog articles, each chapter of this book on living with heart disease was to start with a theme introduced by a brief personal narrative of my own heart attack experience. Each narrative was to be followed by a broader discussion of closely related themes, including what cardiac researchers are currently reporting in the literature.

Regular Heart Sisters blog readers already know that I like evidence. This was especially important when covering potentially controversial subjects--like the growing number of studies warning that female heart patients continue to be underdiagnosed compared to our male counterparts. Still, when the JHU cardiologist reviewed my draft Table of Contents before I’d even signed our publishing contract, the reflexive reaction to Chapter 3’s theme of cardiac diagnosis and misdiagnosis was simply “sounds like doctor-bashing to me!” Merely the word misdiagnosis elicits that response in some physicians. To counter that, I included hundreds of research citations.

I decided on a structured daily writing schedule, starting early while my cardiac symptoms were at their most polite. And I enlisted the volunteer participation of my eagle-eyed daughter-in-law Paula to review my draft manuscript. She was also kind enough to memorize the entire Chicago Manual of Style so that when she was checking my early drafts, we’d know if I were on track.

I was over the moon when University of Arizona Chief of Cardiology Dr. Martha Gulati (a physician I’d once described as “one of the rock stars of cardiology”) agreed immediately to my request to write the foreword of my book. Her beautiful four-page foreword made me cry when I first read it.

Dr. Martha Gulati

Everything seemed to be coming together as planned. I had the new laptop, the writing schedule, the family proofreader, the brilliant foreword writer. But I felt profoundly exhausted by all of it.

I’m sure now, writing this in the deadline-free luxury of hindsight, that this relentless exhaustion was what led to some dark periods of feeling utterly stuck, especially by the summer of 2016, halfway to deadline. For example, unlike my own blog articles, which have neither deadlines nor third-party edits, suddenly I now had big deadlines marked with a red Sharpie on my calendar, and countdown pressure to produce something quite fabulous by each deadline.

The tidy writing schedule I’d decided upon fell apart because of ongoing cardiac issues that seemed to get worse under deadline stress. Being a heart patient while writing a book was so much harder than I had anticipated. My mostly productive early morning writing periods meant crashing in a heap later on trying to recuperate enough to write more the following day. Entire 2,000 word chunks of the manuscript went missing from my new laptop and had to be frantically rewritten at the last minute. I hated the Chicago Manual of Style. I disagreed with JHUP staff over the title.

This was either going to be the best heart book ever, or the most useless garbage ever—but I couldn’t be quite sure from moment to moment which one this project was destined to become.

 

Carolyn Thomas is the author of A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease (JHUP, November 2017). Excerpts from this post were previously published on her blog, Heart Sisters.