Kathy Harmon-Luber on Writing Her Book Suffering to Thriving: Your Tool Kit for Navigating Your Healing Journey
I am pleased to publish my interview with author Kathy Harmon-Luber, a colleague, poet, and non-fiction writer whose book will touch many. Hearing from her on how she approached writing her book, organized her effort to write it, and then how to get the book out and promoted will be useful and inspirational for Writing It Real members who want to publish work from their personal experiences and share helpful information they learned and studied. Following the interview, you” find an excerpt from Luber’s book Suffering to Thriving: Your Tool Kit for Navigating Your Healing Journey: How to Live a More Healthy, Peaceful, Joyful Life,
How did you hatch the idea of writing your book?
Although I’ve spent my entire career as a writer (fundraising and marketing for nonprofit organizations that make the world a better place) and have enjoyed writing poetry and journaling since I was a little girl, I never intended to write a book. I even have a graduate degree in publishing from George Washington University—and way back then I certainly never intended to write a book!
Following decades of debilitating spinal diseases, in 2016 a spinal disc ruptured (it was the 4th inoperable disc rupture), leaving me completely flat on my back, in agonizing pain, and bedridden for five years. Unable to even walk to the bedroom door for many months—let alone paint at my easel, play flute or guitar, swim or hike, etc.—my journal became my means of creative expression. I wrote about my daily trials, contemplations, what I was learning from this healing journey. Journaling was a coping mechanism. I needed it to survive. It kept me sane and helped me to hold on to hope.
At some point—I think it was a year or two of being bedridden and still journaling daily—I realized it contained a lot of practical wisdom and tools for navigating a difficult health crisis. It is the toolbox I wish I had decades ago. It occurred to me that everyone, at some point in life, goes through health challenges, and maybe I should share my journey with the world.
What organizing principle did you use?
I began by organizing it into three topical sections with 40+ short chapters, drawing from the journal entries. But my editor helped me to shape it into six parts, also topically organized, with 38 short chapters. Each chapter begins with a quote that echoes the chapter theme—quotes from the Stoics, mystics, and Buddhists, to famous authors and contemporary thought leaders (there’s even a quote from the bible).
What were the obstacles to writing it?
As you know, writing requires great dedication and discipline. As a career writer, I already had that going for me. I knew intimately what Annie Lamott credits being a successful writer to: Butt in the chair. That’s where a lot of people fail at writing.
However, I did face two daunting obstacles to writing. 1) My spine: I was completely bedridden, and propping myself up to write was, in the beginning, tremendously painful. There was a long period of time when I was flat on my back and propped my laptop up with a pillow on my belly in order to see the screen and type. Getting the space situated for working productively was initially challenging. But then I asked my husband Ken to bring a little Florentine nesting table from the living room, and set it up beside my side of the bed (in addition to the nightstand). On it I placed my phone, pencils/pens, post-it notes, etc. Beside me on the actual bed, I placed an in-basket-like tray with a few work papers, client notebook and time cards, stapler, and such. However, I’ve been completely paperless for over a decade, so it was fairly easy to stay organized!
2) Time: This was a two-fold issue. First, I was still working full-time as a grant writer, often working evenings and weekends to meet submission deadlines. So I didn’t have a lot of “free time” to work on the book. So on Sunday night, I’d open my computer calendar for the week and literally designate color-coded chunks of time for the book. It helped to keep me focused and accountable. Then at the end of each day, I could look back and see how I did—sometimes 15 minutes a day, other times, a few hours.
The other side to that was that this grant writing work was incredibly taxing on my spine. So the additional time spent writing the book added yet another level of stress to my spine. In retrospect, it wasn’t the best self-care. But I was so passionate about writing the book, I tried to juggle as best I could without causing further damage. The book was a joyful and cathartic experience, which I urgently need to get me through that trying time.
All told, I spent just over two years actually writing the book, then nearly a year in the editing process (content editing, line editing, copyediting, and proofreading phases). As a practical matter, being so much in my head with writing all day helped to distract me from my physical state and frankly, from catastrophizing about my future, and so on. In the last two years of writing and editing, I ended up taking considerable time off from work—plus nearly every weekend and holiday—which is what I needed to complete the book. Otherwise, it probably would have taken another year or more.
What were the pleasures of writing it?
I love all the aspects of writing. I mean, I write literally every day, whether it’s grant writing, poetry, contemplative journaling, dream journaling, etc. So writing the book was a very joyful process. Although I had never written anything as long as a book (I think 120 pages was the longest federal grant I had ever written), I enjoyed the challenge of organizing the material (it’s one of my superpowers), selecting journal excerpts and quotes, doing the copious research necessary for a book about healing, coming up with catchy chapter titles, and of course the actual writing of the book content. In other words, every element of the writing was a joy for me.
Did you have to reconsider and revise, expand and develop? Tell us about your process.
Oh, for sure. After two years of writing, I had way too much material. It was organized well, and it was all valuable, well-written content, but my publisher was firm that it needed to be cut by nearly half. Working with my content editor was one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my life. My publisher provided the content editor as the first step of the content editing-line editing-copyediting-proofreading process. They had already accepted the manuscript for publication, but they thought it would be a better book were it trimmed down. They were clear that it was a recommendation to do content editing, but in the end, it was my decision. I decided to go for it, wanting to make the book as best it could be, and also seeing the wisdom of using some of the content for a possible sequel, articles, and/or collateral material. My content editor made some recommendations for the chapters that could be cut (some of his recommendations he took and others I didn’t).
Honestly, when I first received my content editor’s recommendations, I nearly walked away from the book. I couldn’t wrap my head around his six-part organization suggestion and had no idea how to reduce the content by nearly half. Every time I’d sit down (ha ha, not literally “sit down” of course, because all I could really do is recline in bed) for an hour or so at the end of a work day, I just couldn’t get into it. I would just sit and stare at it. Completely lost. So I took a break from the book entirely for about a month. But it kept calling to me. I couldn’t ignore the call, so one day I poured over my calendar and carved out a week off from work to delve into it. It wasn’t enough, of course, but it was a productive beginning. Everything is incremental. So I just kept tackling manageable pieces of it and wrangled it into shape.
As you can imagine, reducing the manuscript by 40% isn’t achieved by trimming words here and there. It required that I cut out nearly all of the actual journal entries and work the most essential information into the book narrative, reduce the number of quotes by half (I originally had quotes at the beginning and end of each chapter, and peppered through some of the chapter content, like call-outs). I edited out an enormous amount of my own story. Faulkner is attributed to saying, Kill your darlings. So I did. It was painful.
Is the book better as a result? I hope so. The good news is that most all of the discarded content I’m planning to repurpose as social media posts, blog post ideas, collaterals, free giveaways, etc. Who knows, maybe a sequel?
For certain, after that content editing, the rest of the editorial process – the line editing, copyediting, and proofreading – was a breeze! My publisher’s editors were great to work with. You know, I did graduate-level training as an editor, but when it comes to our own manuscripts, it is so essential to work with good editors. The fact is, we are just too close to our own words to be objective readers. Without a doubt, a good editor makes our writing ever so much better! I was happy to have their help.
How did you go about selecting/finding a publisher?
In my working life, I help nonprofit organizations find foundation and corporate grants, and as you can imagine, in addition to writing a compelling proposal, there’s the research aspect – akin to finding a golden needle in a haystack. So I applied those same research skills to finding a publisher. I sought a short list of publishers of similar books, I created what I hoped was a compelling book proposal that had as its hook my unique personal story of the healing journey, and the wisdom I had gleaned along the way. As I began to get some interest from a couple of publishers, it became clear to me that I must stay very true to myself and my physical limitations. It was essential to my health and well-being. For example, I spoke with one publisher who was very insistent about a short (in my view) timeline for completing the manuscript. Well, when I submitted my book proposal, I only sent the Introduction and a few short, early chapters of the book – not the entire draft manuscript, because I didn’t have that written! I gave them a robust table of contents with solid chapter descriptions, but basically, the book needed to be written. So, given my physical condition, full-time job, and frankly, urgent need for robust self-care, I knew I couldn’t write the whole book in under two years. I sensed that I would be pressured by that particular publisher. The publisher I went with had a target of two to three years, but seemed flexible, should I run into difficulties. I’m very glad I listened to my instincts on that.
How are you promoting your book?
Constantly. I can’t emphasize enough just how important this is if authors want to maximize the impact of their books. Publishers will of course do some promotion, but the lion’s share must fall to the author. Many months before my book launch, I created a marketing plan for the year. The promotion began about two months before my book launch. I created and launched my website, www.SufferingToThriving.com, and began the promotional drumbeat on social media (people can see the best examples on Facebook, “Kathy Harmon-Luber, Suffering to Thriving” (I’m also on Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, although in a less robust way).
In May, my launch month, I orchestrated the appearance of print articles, podcasts, digital media news articles, etc. My launch party was well attended—seen by 400 people on Facebook and on my YouTube channel. Promotion is an ongoing campaign for the year ahead. I’m currently posting to social media once or twice a week, guest writing articles for publications, and I am pitching my story to media on a regular basis. In fact, I’m being included in an article in Women’s World magazine in September!
What would you tell others who have a book they want to write about personal experience in an area where they think their experience can help others?
Go for it! There’s only one YOU in the whole universe. No one else has exactly the same story to tell, although we all can benefit from each other’s shared experiences. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to take my last breath thinking, I wish I had written that book. Every day someone tells me what an impact my book has made on their healing journey. That is the greatest reward, knowing that we have touched another life in a meaningful way. As I say in the last chapter of my book, “We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us …We owe it to others to share our insights so they may climb upon our shoulders and be closer to the light.”
So just do it! Start where you are. Enlist the help you need along the way. Take a writing or publishing class. Join a writers’ group. Get a mentor.
In my situation, I couldn’t afford to take the time off from work that was vital to the timely completion of the manuscript—nor could I afford the considerable expenses associated with book marketing, website creation, etc. Two dear friends created a Fellowship fund, and invited several other friends to contribute, in order to make all this possible for me. It was life-changing.
Above all, enjoy the journey! It will transform you in profound ways.
Kathy, thank you for such thorough answers to writing and publishing questions. I think if other authors can do even half of what you have done their books will be seen by many. And now for the excerpt from your book
From Chapter 2 of Suffering to Thriving: Your Tool Kit for Navigating Your Healing Journey: How to Live a More Healthy, Peaceful, Joyful Life, by Kathy Harmon-Luber
This Thing Called Suffering
We can make ourselves miserable, or we can make ourselves strong. The amount of effort is the same.
A health crisis or catastrophic injury usually strikes out of left field. Unanticipated. Unwelcome. You’re fine one day, and the next, you’re thrown off course. Depending on how disastrous it is, it can totally derail your life and leave chaos—or abrupt endings—in its wake.
Most of us feel sorely unprepared for the profound mental and physical suffering and the pain, disappointment, discouragement, and despair that come from health crises. Change is hard. Loss and grief harder still. We likely don’t tell ourselves these struggles hold meaning—but they do. Even the downward spiral, rock bottom, or dark night of the soul happens for a reason. Often it’s a wake-up call, an initiation.
It’s all too easy to get stuck in the mental suffering that overshadows illness and injury. We are snared by what I call “suffering traps.” Here are a few of them:
- Expectation of specific outcomes—When we expect to be healed in a certain number of days or months, to be able to return to normal life, or to make a complete recovery, we’re setting ourselves up to suffer. All that matters is what you can achieve right now—in this moment. Once you accept this, suffering lifts like a weight off your shoulders and soul. And with this inner peace, healing happens.
- Comparison—Comparing your Bad Day (of pain, loss, illness, etc.) to someone else’s Best Day (similarly, comparing your current inability to your former ability) can cause great suffering. You are not and may never be who you were. And that’s okay. You’ll find peace when you embrace this.
- Struggling—If we don’t accept the reality of our situation but instead struggle against it, we’ll suffer. You’ll endure less pain by living your life with an acceptance of what is.
- Fears and worries—We suffer less when we face what frightens us. Fears and worries are not truths.
- Unattainable desire—The Buddha teaches that the root of suffering is desire. On the healing journey, we often desire that our life could be different, and this is often unrealistic. It’s certainly not your current reality. When we let go of unattainable desires, suffering evaporates.
- Allowing “shoulds” to rule—Illness/injury is your permission slip to walk away from everything you “should do” that no longer serves you (in a responsible way, of course). Make “want-tos” your priority.
- Perfection—Holding on to the illusion that your body and health must be perfect creates suffering. As Leonard Cohen sang, “There is a crack, a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.”[i] That crack is imperfection—where light comes into darkness and transforms you. On the darkest moonless night, the stars shine their brightest.
The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.
—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Most Suffering Is a Choice
The statement that suffering is a choice may sound insensitive or delusional. We didn’t ask for our health crisis; we certainly didn’t choose it. But we’re talking here about how we respond to things we cannot control. When we let our suffering dominate us, we’re putting on what William Blake called “mind-forged manacles.”[ii]
Suffering can become a prison of our own making wherein we insidiously trap ourselves. We don’t need to dwell in that place. Suffering is a choice. The door of the prison of self-imposed suffering is locked from the inside—and you have the key. In other words, it’s totally within your power to diminish unnecessary suffering by changing how you perceive and react to it.
Where we place our awareness shapes our reality. If we focus on suffering, our lives become a daily slog through a wasteland of suffering.
In his book The Stoic Challenge, William Irvine tells us the goal is “not to remain calm while suffering a setback but rather to experience a setback without thereby suffering.”[iii] Notice that subtle distinction: suffering and setbacks are not the same thing. We cannot control our health setbacks, but we can control our reactions to them. The body may be in pain, but the mind doesn’t need to be. We can be suffering physically yet still be happy to be alive and celebrate beauty, love, friendship, and freedom.
In other words, we live in two worlds—an inner and an outer world, which have significant independence from one another. In the outer world, our bodies may be disabled, diseased, or dying while at the same time our inner world can be lush, vibrant, imaginative, and thriving. Too often people allow terrible challenges in their outer world to overrule their inner world. This is the prison of suffering. We must choose to free ourselves from it. The healing journey can be the catalyst to shift from outer work to inner work.
Suffering is part of our training program for becoming wise.
Benefits to Suffering?
Don’t turn away. Keep looking at the bandaged place.
That’s where the light enters you.
It’s important that we not turn our eyes from suffering. It may sound strange, I know. But suffering can be a catalyst for change and portal to find:
- greater self-love
- compassion for others who are suffering
- personal growth and development
- spiritual renewal
As we’ll see in the next chapter, the benefits we gain from the catalyst of suffering can alter the trajectory of our healing.
There’s a popular bit of wisdom that says, “Grow through what you go through.” On the healing journey, when times are difficult and challenges seem insurmountable, there’s always an opportunity to grow. These tests of strength and resilience can be catalysts for finding meaning and purpose in the suffering we go through. Otherwise, what we don’t grow through, we learn the hard way through emotional suffering and pain.
There is something sleeping inside you that your health crisis and suffering will awaken—if you let it. You see, your inner world can lie dormant for years—for some people, most of their lives. Sadly, some folks never awaken to their inner world. It usually remains asleep until an event—illness, injury, loss, trauma, or tragedy—awakens it.
Your ailment is the trumpet sounding reveille. Wake up and pay attention!
Some folks are able to transcend their suffering to live a life of meaning and contentment while others become angry, negative, bratty, unkind, and bitter. To become someone who breaks free from this self-imposed prison and thrives, we must aim to cultivate a peaceful, joy-filled, healing inner world. It’s a choice. In every moment, we can choose our thoughts and reactions to the ever-present challenges facing us in our exterior world. Choice is the key. To grow and thrive we must choose to end our suffering.
Isn’t there enough suffering in the world? If you knew you could get off the path of suffering, wouldn’t you? Don’t choose to take the suffering road. If you find yourself on it, choose a different way. It’s in our power to release ourselves from suffering. We can choose fear or love, craziness or peace, anger or joy, suffering or thriving.
I know all this “choice talk” can be hard to swallow. Not too long ago, when people would suggest I had a choice in a given situation, I’d argue with them. “I absolutely did not have any choice,” I’d say, “I have too much work to do, too many people counting on me, not enough hours in the day . . .” yada, yada.
That was a false belief. Yes, some things happen independent of my volition, but nonetheless, in every moment, I do indeed have some choice.
You might be angry, impatient, or in despair because of your condition, and I understand. You’re entitled to your feelings; I’m not at all suggesting you ignore or suppress them. Changing your mind means not allowing runaway unproductive thoughts to ruin your health.
You have the power to choose differently, and the following exercise can help you learn what took me many years to discover.
Practice this exercise as often as you need to.
- Acknowledge your health challenges are inviting you to develop a vibrant inner world free of suffering.
- Explore the landscape of your inner world. What are you choosing to suffer through? What is the root of your suffering?
- Decide now that, although you have an illness, you choose to suffer no longer.
- Set your intention today to break free from suffering and enjoy your life.
You’ll find more opportunities to work through this process in the chapters ahead.
[i] Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” January–June 1992, track five on The Future, Columbia, 1992.
[ii] William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (Basil Montagu Pickering, 1868).
[iii] Irvine, The Stoic Challenge.