A writer’s voice

A writer’s voice is as distinctive as a fingerprint.

One of the challenges I often face as a writer is deciding which voice I should turn to when writing something for a popular audience. Through years and years of institutional training, my default voice has become an academic one. And when the subject matter is particularly sensitive, like in my memoir about the friendship between Edwina and me and the circumstances that brought us together, I oftentimes find myself theorizing ideas rather than jumping into experiences and exchanges we’ve shared.

Speaking as an academic isn’t usually intentional in these instances. It’s simply easier, and far less painful, to write about matters like abuse and addiction and illness from a distance.

Since starting work on my memoir, I’ve taken some breaks to read work by authors whose default voice is a less academic one. People like Heidi Julavits, author of The Folded Clock, and Marina Keegan, whose posthumous book The Opposite of Loneliness speaks without pretense to readers.

The kind of pain and insight and wonder I’ve experienced as a breast cancer survivor and in my relationship with Edwina is the sort that’s felt first. I just wish that I could resist the urge to push down those feelings by over-thinking what it is they mean. Sometimes, it’s what we sense deep inside that matters most. It is enough.

The Alabama Project on the NCI website

My friend and colleague Suzanne Parker initiated publication of a story about The Alabama Project on the National Cancer Institute website before she experienced an aneurysm several weeks ago. I stepped in to flesh out the piece, which I’m happy to report has just gone live on the NCI’s website: http://www.cancer.gov/about-nci/organization/crchd/blog/2015/alabama-project

The story will soon be posted on the NCI homepage as well, so many more can see the beautiful images David captured and hear these survivors’ powerful stories.

Thank you, Suzanne!


It’s Father’s Day, a great time to honor the man who’s had a huge influence on how I live my life.

Dad is a fourth-generation Illinois farmer who has spent his days tending to fields of corn, soybeans, and occasionally wheat. Over the years, he also tried his hand at raising livestock. At one time or another, my parents owned cows and sheep. An array of other animals have also lived on the Ryan farm, including a duck, goats, and plenty of dogs and cats.

Though he’s retired now, Dad still loves the land. Every time I head home for a visit, we hop in the pickup and drive by the fields. Last summer, we took photos of the two of us standing in one of his corn fields, the stalks rising above our heads.

As he’s grown older, Dad has also taken the time to teach me some vital lessons about how farms operate since one day, I’ll step into his shoes. They will be big shoes to fill.

If I had to choose just one word to describe my dad, it would be “integrity.” The most important thing I’ve learned from my dad is to stand your ground, even if others disagree with you.

When farmers were borrowing large sums of money in the 70’s to purchase land, Dad didn’t follow suit. He believed that the economy would shift, as it always has, and those who borrowed too much might not be in a position to pay it all back. He was right. Our family kept our farm while many friends and neighbors lost theirs during the 80’s Farm Crisis.

There are so many examples of my dad’s unwavering commitment to what he thinks is right.┬áHis┬áCatholic faith. His insistence that spending money to appear rich and important isn’t worth the anxiety you’ll feel at night when your head hits the pillow. His conviction that good leaders are those who recognize disparities in how people around our country live and attempt to do something about it.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

Meeting Cloe

My 17-year-old and I just returned from London. When I was invited over a year ago to make a presentation at a conference in Oxford this summer, I asked Celia if she’d like to come along to England with me. She didn’t skip a beat before signing on for her first international adventure.

During our time in London, we visited the usual tourist sites: Big Ben, Tower of London, Buckingham, London Eye, and so on. But we also did something out of the ordinary that I’m still trying to wrap my brain around.

A few days into the trip, I sat at my computer catching up on emails while Celia kicked back on the hotel bed to check out some you-tube videos. Suddenly, I heard a high-pitched squeal coming from Celia’s direction:

“Mommy, Cloe is having a meet and greet at Princess Diana’s memorial in Hyde Park this Saturday!!!!!!! Can we go?!”

“Um, maybe. Who’s Cloe?”

“Cloe from Cloe Couture! She’s one of my favorite you-tubers!!!”

Priding myself on being a semi-cool mom, I do know what you-tube is. Heck, I’ve even watched a few videos. One demonstrated how to wrap my sari, something I’ve never quite mastered despite being instructed by more than a few Indian women. Others have featured clips from interviews and talks by people whose work I’m interested in. But Cloe Couture? Never heard of her.

Celia showed me one of Cloe’s videos, confident that I would recognize the girl’s brilliance. Cloe is indeed entertaining to watch–a little bit of information on clothes, shopping and other teenage matters is mixed in with humor and lots and lots of energy. Plus, she’s just a tad older than Celia, and will be heading to UCLA in the fall to begin her freshman year.

So on Saturday, my British pal Kathryn, Celia and I trekked our way through Hyde Park to Cloe’s gathering. A number of fans were already there when we arrived, and Celia soon joined the circle to get to know the other girls, play a game, and take photos with Cloe. Celia was very, very excited to have met her online friend in person. And Celia’s friends expressed (via text, instagram, and snapchat) their extreme jealousy that Celia had the opportunity to actually meet someone that they’ve only seen from afar. As far away as you-tube.