Mark Henick: On Memory, Healing, and Languishing Projects

Author Mark Henick shares how he was able to turn a successful TEDx talk into a memoir, even when the project didn't come as quickly as he expected.
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Mark Henick’s TEDx talk about the stranger who saved his life has been viewed millions of times and is among the most-watched TEDx talks ever.

Mark has appeared in hundreds of television, radio, print, and online features about mental health. As host of both his So-Called Normal podcast, and the Living Well podcast for Morneau Shepell, he has interviewed well over a hundred experts, celebrities, and public figures about mental health.

(Back to Basics: Writing & Publishing Memoir)

Mark previously served as the youngest ever board director for the Mental Health Commission of Canada and is the youngest president of a provincial Canadian Mental Health Association division in history. Mark’s various roles at CMHA have included frontline clinician, program manager, and most recently as National Director of Strategic Initiatives.

Presently, Mark owns a boutique mental health media consulting firm, and he is a high-demand international keynote speaker on mental health recovery.

Mark Henick So-Called Normal AUTHOR IMAGE 1

In this post, Henick shares how he was able to turn a successful TEDx talk into a memoir, even when the project didn't come as quickly as he expected, and much more!

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This course guides beginning and intermediate writers through elements of how to write a personal essay, helping them identify values expressed in their stories and bring readers into the experiences described.

This course guides beginning and intermediate writers through elements of how to write a personal essay, helping them identify values expressed in their stories and bring readers into the experiences described.

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Name: Mark Henick
Literary agent: Robert Mackwood
Title: So-Called Normal: A Memoir of Family, Depression and Resilience
Publisher: HarperCollins
Release date: January 12, 2021
Genre: Memoir
Elevator pitch for the book: So-Called Normal is Mark Henick’s memoir about growing up in a broken home and the events that led to his near-death one night on a bridge. It is a vivid and personal account of the mental health challenges he experienced in childhood and his subsequent journey toward healing and recovery.

Mark Henick So-Called Normal BOOK COVER IMAGE

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What prompted you to write this book?

This story had been brewing for years. I’d been sharing parts of it publicly since high school, in both written and spoken forms. With the massive success of my TEDx talk in 2012, I started to experience the pressure, mostly from within my own mind, to tell the rest of the story beyond that brief window. It was the sudden death of my mother that ultimately set the book in motion. This gave me both the emotional imperative and the disinhibition required. I felt an urgency to summarize our shared experiences surrounding my turbulent childhood and adolescence while they were still so fresh, with so many memories stirred up by her death. I also felt the freedom to tell it the way that I really experienced it, without the worry of self-censoring to please or shield her.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

The initial phase happened quickly. From agent to proposal to a pre-emptive deal from my current publisher within a few weeks. Then the project languished for nearly a year. I spent that time outlining and maybe writing in my head, but not much was happening on paper.

Several months after the deal, realizing that I’d still been focusing more on my career than my story, I attended a Tony Robbins seminar in New York. I can’t deny the motivating effect that it had on me—probably at least in part because I was seeking motivation to begin with. Upon returning home, I put plans in place, and quit my prominent role within a national mental health charity in order to focus almost exclusively on writing the book.

(Realistic Expectations For Writing a Memoir)

That winter, I lived at a Trappist monastery for more than a month, during which time I wrote the first draft. I woke up at 3:00 am every morning, chanted with the monks seven times a day, and wrote in between. I lived with the words, I slept with the longhand pages by my bed, I dreamt of the story. I ended up with twice the length my publisher needed. From there we went through eight drafts, two editors, and several more monastery trips over the next two years. We finally found the right pacing. I finally accepted that I would never be done and that it was time to let go.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title? 

An author really does need to be their own biggest advocate, marketer, and champion. Even if you don’t yet know how, nobody is going to do it for you. I’d read about this in craft and trade publications, other authors had shared the same lesson with me, but I didn’t really appreciate how true it was until I went through it myself.

I was adamant, for example, that my story was not about suicide—even if exploring my suicidality occupies a significant portion of the book. A significant number of people who know me know of my TEDx talk (I’ve made sure of that!). Understandably, people may want more of the same. I’d trodden that path so many times though, in talks and articles, that I needed the book to go deeper and further than I’d ever gone before. I had to push for that, to not make a commercial caricature of myself or my story.

My book needed to include not just the misery, but the miracles too. It needed to explore the constraints of normalcy, of expectation, and of development as universal themes, and not cast me or anyone else as somehow special or different. People with mental illnesses are not different; there is no us and them because when stories our stories are broken down to their most universal themes, there’s we and they are the same. We’re all just people trying to figure out how to be normal, whatever so-called normal even means.

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

I pulled my medical records and as many police records as I was allowed to have. I quickly noticed that these documents were replete with inconsistencies, that there were documents missing or withheld, and that taken as a whole it was fairly clear why my mental health care wasn’t working. We kept trying a lot of the same things, and there didn’t seem to be much if any of a plan as to how to help me. It reinforced and validated for me what I had experienced—a fractured, disorganized, and sometimes dishonest system that largely didn’t help me.

(Talking Memoir and Narrative Nonfiction)

I also learned profound lessons in the writing process about the nature of memory. Deep into my monastery trips, I was able to access memories and experiences that I had long repressed. It was scary, emotional, challenging, and necessary work. I was able to explore those memories, write about them in searing detail because I was there again. But then, interestingly, when I was done with them they had served their function. In the editing process later, I actually struggled to re-access a range of things that I had called up from my depths. I had put them back inside me again, though each time a little more repaired than before.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

We seem to want to see people with diagnoses as somehow different. “I’m not like them, those crazy people.” It’s a tidy and comforting self-delusion. If we happen to be the person with the diagnosis, we sometimes alienate and exclude ourselves. “I’m not like normal people.” There’s hardly a more self-destructive mental construct than comparing ourselves to a fictitious normal, as though “normal” were some objective Platonic ideal to be achieved at all.

I hope that people on either end of this spectrum of relative normalcy can read my book and hopefully see themselves as all on one shared journey. Nobody is normal. Thank God for that.

Henick_1:13

If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?

Organize your life to allow your process to articulate and elaborate itself. If you need to copy someone else’s process for a while at first, that’s ok, just let it evolve and become your own. When you find your moments of flow—those beautiful, magical moments when time just slips away—lean into them. When the flow won’t come, accept that maybe that’s where you are that day, maybe your mind is trying to do something else instead, and acknowledge that that’s ok. Find a process, build a process, trust your process. That’s what I gradually figured out as I went.

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