Imagine blissfully retiring before the age of fifty. Your youngest gets her driver’s license, freeing you to finally do whatever strikes your fancy every day. Golfing comes to mind, so you take up the game and it quickly becomes a passion. Then comes an illness — like a series of strokes — that throws your life into a tailspin. You can’t golf and your children are now taking care of you. What would you do to regain a sense of usefulness?
That was the question I faced five years ago after suffering a series of mild strokes. At first while recuperating, Netflix provided my only escape from my new reality—my brain felt like it was floating in a fishbowl. Mindless, all-day binging meant I didn’t have to concentrate much or remember things, which worked out because most days I couldn’t do either.
Life after strokes
For months, I thought that was my lot in life as the doctors had warned, until one day I found myself at my local Target. Standing in the middle of an aisle, I couldn’t remember why I was there, let alone how I got there. Something had to change, so I decided to call the doctor’s prognosis bullshit and do whatever I had to do to get better. That meant retraining my brain to focus, retain, and recall. After setting reminders and alarms for every little daily task, I decided to exercise my brain and that meant reading.
I wasn’t much of a reader before, tackling only what was required for work or to get through college eons ago. So, I instantly had a problem—where to start? I had no idea what authors to explore nor what genres might carry my concentration that was to say the least, poor. Weeks earlier, I had binged all six seasons of The L Word, wishing I had foregone the sixth. Damn you, Ilene! For years, I wondered who the hell killed Jenny? But I digress.
With Bette and Tina fresh in my head—one of the few things that actually stuck in my mushy brain—I sought out fanfiction to feed my B&T obsession. I landed at LesFan.com, home of the world’s largest collection of The L Word stories and a place for fanfiction writers to test their wings. When I first started, I had to read a chapter two or three times to digest its contents, but my persistence paid off. My brain began to heal, and so did my body. Within a month, I was retaining the storyline on the first pass, and was riding in golf carts with my friends. Within a year, I had read hundreds and was back playing golf.
It was the collective demonstration of courage by fanfic writers that sparked the writing bug in me.
Some stories were absolutely amazing, and made me wonder why they were on a fanfiction site and not available on Amazon. A handful of writers stood out, one of which who would later become a Goldie winner for her debut novel. I’ll get back to her later. While the quality writing captured my interest, it was the beginning writers who captured my imagination. They had little to no training, yet they churned out story after story for no other reason other than they had yarns to spin. They had guts. It was that collective demonstration of courage that sparked the writing bug in me.
I started journaling, and those scribblings turned into something more. I added spins here and there to see where it would go. Soon, I had a story of my own to tell, and I made my first post on LesFan.
Five novel-length stories later, one of those amazing writers read a story of mine—the third, I think—and she sent me a private message that required translation. She wrote: “You have a very good shitty first draft.” Translation: “All first drafts are shitty, but your shit has promise.” That amazing writer was Cameron MacElvee (Author and Goldie winner of By the Dark of Her Eyes and The Smell of Rain.) She encouraged me to take my writing seriously, learn proper craft, and believe I could be published one day. I decided not to be stopped by the lingering physical weakness from the strokes and followed her advice.
Because of Cammie, I found the Golden Crown Literary Society Writing Academy (which has an annual conference in Alberquerque, NM each year). Their outstanding volunteer staff and faculty taught me how to breathe life into my storytelling. One incredible instructor stood out. After nailing a homework assignment, the four-word reply in capitalized bold print Karelia Stetz-Waters sent marked a shift in how I viewed my writing. She wrote, “YOU ARE A WRITER!” From that day, I believed.
My romantic thriller, Out of the Flames, will release next month, and I have a new career I absolutely adore.
Thanks to the recommendation of my academy mentor, Ann Roberts (author of numerous romance and general fiction books), who made it all click for me, I left the writing academy with a contract from Bella Books. My romantic thriller, Out of the Flames, will release next month, and now I have a new career I absolutely adore.
Life after fanfic
But things rarely turn out as planned and not long before I began working with Medora MacDougall to edit Out of the Flames, I was diagnosed with a rare disease that only retinal specialists can pronounce. Macular Telangiectasia Type 2 has no cure and no treatment. I’m faced with losing my central vision—the ability to recognize details. Its devastating effects have already begun, and soon I won’t be able to read or recognize faces.
I thought about throwing in the towel after this book, just like I did after the strokes. Letters disappear on the screen to the point that “Flames” looks like “Fames”—it’s frustrating. While I can make it easier with accommodations—the magic of magnification (200 percent on good days and 400 percent on bad), strange computer voices reading back, and red squiggly lines that most writers consider annoying—I struggle to read and edit my own work.
Since I’m a smidge below the moderate stage with this disease, my vision will only get worse.
But this time, I didn’t need a Target moment to light a fire under me. I lit one myself because I still have more stories to tell.
I’ve signed up to be a human Guinea pig for a clinical trial, and with a little dash of this from scientists and a little dash of that from a very smart Stanford doctor, the disease might slow enough in one eye to allow me to finish the next five books I have planned. If it doesn’t, I’ll find another way. Like I retrained my brain, I’ll train my eyes to use low vision aids to get the job done. After all, as Karelia said, I am a writer!
So, what’s the lesson here? No matter how bad things get, you have a choice. You can wallow in your pain and give up, or you can do whatever’s required to rise above the challenges before you. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m thankful for my strokes. If not for them, I wouldn’t have been prepared to lose my eyesight and I may never have found my passion. Who knew having strokes could be a good thing?