Rosemary Rawlins is the author of Learning By Accident, published in July 2011. The memoir grew out of a journal she kept after her husband, Hugh, sustained a traumatic brain injury. The couple now live in Richmond, Va., where she works as an inspirational speaker on topics of caregiving and personal leadership.
Rosemary shared how she published the book herself at The Writing Show on June 28, 2012. She was interviewed by Elizabeth Rabin, a freelance writer and JRW website contributor, in May 2012.
QUESTION 1: Your memoir is a moment-by-moment story of your experience coping with your husband Hugh’s traumatic brain injury (TBI) following a cycling accident in 2002. Can you talk a little bit about how you got started on the book, and what your process was?
I never intended to write a book. The memoir grew out of a journal I kept in the ICU while my husband was in a coma. A nurse suggested I keep a journal because Hugh would not remember much when he woke up. I quickly became obsessed with my journal. It was my therapy. I also read many books about brain injury and most of them frightened me beyond belief. In my experience, my fear was worse than reality. I wanted to convey that in a book and allow others to see and feel what actually went on behind the front door of a family experiencing traumatic brain injury, so perhaps they would know how to support others going through this.
In 2003 I started shaping my journals into a book — a very bad book. I wasn’t trained as a creative writer, even though I’d always loved writing. After finishing an human resources degree at night at the University of Richmond, I joined the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UR and signed up for a class called, “In Search of the Perfect Sentence” taught by Jan Tarasovic. Jan is a veteran English teacher and she’s an enormously talented writer.
I also joined a writer’s group that Jan formed, and we met for several years every week — just five of us. This was the best education of my life. During this time, I also joined James River Writers and began attending conferences and writing shows. I was immersed in the writing world and loving it.
QUESTION 2: For readers, part of the appeal of the memoir genre is the window it gives into the author’s private world. Were you concerned about that?
We have twin daughters who are now 24 (they were 14 at the time of Hugh’s injury) and I did think about how they might react to the book. But they both supported it.
My main concern was for my husband, and how telling the story would impact him. He returned to a high-profile job as a chief financial officer after two years in rehabilitation for his injury. But he wanted me to tell the story of how we had found a way as a couple and a family to move forward from what had happened. Not so much a “happy ending” story, but a story that gives hope and encouragement to others who are dealing and struggling with the same kinds of challenges.
QUESTION 3: Do you have anything else in the works?
My husband and I are co-writing the same story from my husband’s point of view. Our hope is that I can meet with caregivers and he can meet with soldiers who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, and we can talk to couples together. This has become a mission for us and it’s been really rewarding. I also wrote a children’s series that I may work on again in the future. And I’d love to try fiction.
I recently signed on with a New York literary agent, Barbara Clark. We met at the James River Writers conference four years ago in a five-minute pitch session.
Barbara encouraged me to self-publish my memoir. More and more agents are suggesting self-publishing for new, unknown authors. If they can show a track record of sales and marketing on the part of a self-published author, then they will take on the book and try to sell it to a publishing house.
QUESTION 4: Did you have to educate yourself about how to go about marketing your book?
Oh, yes, in every single way! It’s a huge learning curve. But there’s a lot written about the process. There’s a lot online. I do go to the workshops that James River Writers puts on — The Writing Show is wonderful.
And I talk to as many writers as I can — a few I met on Goodreads (Lisa Genova, who self-published Still Alice and is now a New York Times best-selling author, and Jenni Ogden, author of Trouble in Mind). I’ve also had some great mentors helping me out, including my sister Peg Healey who lives and writes in California.
I really believe in the power of the Internet and social networking, but honestly I think the best marketing I’ve had is face-to-face with groups and word of mouth. I think personal connection is key, especially for a topic like this, where there’s a real life crisis with so many questions and emotions involved. I’m now connecting with caregivers, TBI survivors, doctors, therapists and families, and it’s been amazing to hear their stories and how they relate to the book.
QUESTION 5: In your experience as a published author thus far, what’s the best thing that’s happened to you?
It’s the personal letters and emails I receive from people saying how the book has helped them, or prepared them for the journey they were about to embark on. It’s that feeling that you’ve helped people, given them something that will allow them to get through this situation better.
In Learning By Accident, one thing I talk about is how the more my husband recovered, the more I fell apart — it’s a very long recovery. I call it marathon caregiving. That’s a huge relief for a lot of caregivers to hear, because they start to feel crazy and to feel a sense of guilt. Also, with various types of brain injuries, and diseases like Alzheimer’s, your loved one is there but you can’t really connect with them. It’s as if the loved one has died, even though they’re still there. That feeling is like the elephant in the room. Just having someone say that out loud, acknowledge it as part of the process, is a huge relief to caregivers. So I feel best about just being able to give people some of the information and tools they need to get through every day of this experience.