The Healing Truth

An aspiring fiction writer realizes her story is better told as a memoir. by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
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With a novel on submission in 2006, Gail Konop Baker wrote a second book to distract herself from the waiting game—a novel about a woman who finds a cancerous lump in her breast and then wonders if she has lived a meaningful life. Her first novel didn’t sell and her agent disliked the second, but even more devastating, Baker went in for a mammogram and was diagnosed with breast cancer. With time, she not only overcame the disease, but wound up selling her first book—the memoir Cancer is a Bitch: Or, I’d Rather be Having a Midlife Crisis.

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After the diagnosis, Baker took a break from fiction and dedicated herself to healing. “All I was writing were these crazy random thoughts in a journal about what was happening. Had I been a good mother and a decent wife? Why hadn’t I done things I’d meant to do?

“I took my journal thoughts and wrote them into an essay and sent it to my friends, [authors] Kristy Kiernan and Lolly Winston,” she says. “They both wrote back saying it was powerful, though I thought it was just a 10-page rambling, intense thing.”

Baker then heard that online magazine Literary Mama—a site with an emphasis on motherhood, which had published her fiction—was looking for a columnist. On a whim, she chopped her essay into four columns and sent it to them. Literary Mama offered her the columnist job, but Baker got cold feet.

“I didn’t know if I wanted to share these personal, intimate thoughts, but people wrote and told me stories and thanked me for being so honest. I’d overthought so much in my life and I decided my new strategy was to just do things.”

One of these things was to break ties with her old agent. She started searching for a new agent for the breast-cancer novel and connected with Larry Weissman. “He told me he wasn’t doing much fiction, but he loved my voice and my writing, and had read my columns,” she says.

Weissman encouraged her to write a proposal for a memoir based on the columns. “Gail has this stark, raw voice,” Weissman says. “It’s direct, powerful and engaging. When you’re dealing with a subject like this, you have to be honest.”

Afraid that the cancer topic might intimidate some readers, Baker points out that the book isn’t really so much about the illness.

“It’s more about how the diagnosis served as a catalyst for me to re-examine my life, my marriage, my mothering and my career choices, and forced me to start doing the things I’d been putting off in all those areas.”

While getting the contract was a reward at the end of a long, hard journey for Baker, writing the book was its own challenge. “I was really nervous about the fact that my first book is this intimate look inside my life. When you write fiction, you can hide behind it. This felt different. I was reliving a very painful, scary time, but I’m totally grateful for the opportunity.

“I loved writing from my life. It’s amazing what happens when you open your eyes and mind.”

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