Today's interview is with Anne Marie Bennett, author of Bright Side of the Road: A Spiritual Journey through Breast Cancer.
I first came across Anne Marie in her articles at Creativity Portal, which led me to her website Kaleidosoul devoted to SoulCollage(R). SoulCollage(R) was developed by Seena Frost and is a process using collage to explore one's inner dimensions by creating cards for aspects of the self. If Seena is the High Priestess of SoulCollage(R), Anne Marie is one of its most enthusiastic acolytes. Her site is filled with a variety of delightful and accessible content about the process.
Reading Bright Side of the Road, I found myself in tears frequently. Not because the journey is harrowing, but because of Anne Marie's search to find grace in every moment of it. The book is illuminated with that grace and with her considerable courage.
Not surprisingly, her website is a wonderful resource for the cancer "journey" and is worth visiting as well.
Anne Marie took some time last week to answer a few questions about her writing. Hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did. (Thank you, Anne Marie!)
You published this previously as an e-book. Why a paper edition now? How is this edition different?
AMB: I was going through my “in process” writing projects about a year ago, feeling very led by Spirit to choose one and make a commitment to it to see it through. That was not an easy thing, since I have about ten manuscripts that I’ve begun over the years that have been “resting.” So I narrowed my choices down to 3 or 4 projects and then asked Spirit to guide me to choose which one to focus on. After several weeks it just became clear to me that Bright Side of the Road was the one to work with first. I operate very intuitively (most of the time!).
I spent many hours editing the e-book into its current format. After not having looked at it for a few years, it was suddenly clear to me what parts were not necessary for the story. The first drafts were more an emotional cleansing for me, getting it all out on paper, writing down every detail. This final version is clearer, sparer, more to the point.
What do you hope people will take away from this book?
AMB: I hope people will read Bright Side of the Road and begin to internalize the fact that “It is not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. --- Epictetus.” I knew that idea intellectually before my cancer diagnosis, but living it from day to day, I was actually able to really understand it, and I hope to inspire people to live from that place of inner responsiveness instead of focusing on the actual event.
I also hope that people will be infused with gratitude for their own lives when they read my book. Gratitude was a huge part of what carried me through the bright side of my breast cancer journey.
What is your writing day like?
AMB: Well, I’m not a full time writer (yet!), so I don’t really have “writing days” unless I take a few days off for a personal retreat! I find that I can’t sit for more than a couple of hours (writing) without having to get up and do something else for a while, so that fits in really well with my current schedule, which is divided between my SoulCollage® business, KaleidoSoul, family, and my part-time job at a bookstore.
How do you deal with writer's block?
AMB: I have SO many ideas flying around in my head, so writer’s block isn’t usually a problem! But when it is, I simply quiet myself and refer to this Anne Lamott quote that is on my writing desk: Writing: You simply keep putting down one damn word after the other, as you hear them, as they come to you. And having trust in the creative process, that is the foundation of my own creative process.
How does SoulCollage® feed your writing?
AMB: I LOVE writing with my SoulCollage® cards! They are a never-ending source of imagination and story for me. I didn’t discover the SoulCollage® process until three years after my cancer treatments ended, but once I made some cards about the inner parts of me who had been affected by my journey, I really felt a deep freedom within to write Bright Side of the Road and put it out there for other women. (You can see my breast cancer SoulCollage® cards and my writing about them here: www.kaleidosoul.com/breastcancer.html)
Could you share a writing ritual with us?
AMB: My Writing desk is next to the window in a small lavender room upstairs in our home. It looks out on our driveway, front yard, a small garden and trees. I feel very happy and centered there, which might be a feng shui thing, and it might just be that my inner child knows that she’s going to get to Write whenever we sit there!
On the desk is a small netbook (smaller than a laptop) computer that I use just for Writing (note the capital W). Also there is a lamp with a nautilus shell built into the base, the Anne Lamott quote (see above) and a small candleholder with “All shall be well and all shall be well…” engraved into it. This is a quotation that I write a lot about in Bright Side of the Road!
So usually, I sit down at my desk, light the candle, say a prayer of gratitude and intention, open the cover of the computer… and begin. This is enough of a ritual to keep me grounded and rooted in Spirit, from which all creativity flows.
As I am reading I am very aware of when the story takes place. (I was south of you, in Cohasset at the time.) Your diagnosis happens weeks after the events of 9/11, though you mention it only once, in passing. That was a very tense autumn and winter. Do you think it affected your experience and what you journalled about? If the pervading atmosphere hadn't been so traumatized, do you think the book would have been different?
AMB: What an interesting question! It’s also interesting to note that my breast cancer diagnosis came on December 11, 2001, exactly 3 months after 9/11. I was more involved right then with the diagnosis and surgery decisions and dealing with the groundswell of emotions that engulfed me at that time, so I wasn’t immediately aware of the connection. Several months later I noticed the connection and thought “Ah, my own personal inner terrorist attack.”
I really don’t think Bright Side of the Road would have been different if I hadn’t been diagnosed at that particular time. The experience I write about is SO internal, and during that time I stopped watching the evening news and reading the newspapers, just so my heart and soul wouldn’t be distracted from the awesome job of inner healing.
I like the useful appendix of suggestions for those who have a breast cancer patient in their lives. (I have a couple of friends going through the cancer journey right now.) What is the most important thing a friend or family member should keep in mind? Any additions to the suggestions you make in the book?
AMB: The most important thing for a loved one to keep in mind is that the breast cancer patient is not just a breast cancer patient. She is still the same beautiful, interesting self that she was before her diagnosis. She is so much more than just another cancer patient. Sometimes I got really tired of people asking me “how do you feel today?” because they were referring to my physical symptoms. So even though my life at that time did revolve around what was happening to me physically, it was really nice to be reminded now and then that I was more than that.
I really felt most loved and cared for by the people who remembered who I really was, beyond the part about being a breast cancer patient. Here are some examples of questions that people asked me that really helped me remember who I was: Have you read any good books lately? Can you recommend a good movie to watch? Are you planning any trips later this year? My daughter is having trouble at school… do you have any advice to give me?
And then there was my oncologist, who during one appointment, asked me “How’s your spirit?” That is one of my favorite Bright Side of the Road stories. Talk about a question to cut past the surface stuff and go right to a woman’s essence!
In the presence of questions like these, I was reminded of who I really was, deep down. I was reminded that I wasn’t just a breast cancer patient. I felt like I was being seen for who I really was.
In the book you describe digging out a box filled with fiction that you'd written and rereading it (and discovering it was pretty good!) What happened to all that fiction? What are your plans for it? When do we get to see it? :)
AMB: Thanks for asking about this, Valerie, because I have put all of those projects back into the filing cabinet for now. It’s lovely to be reminded that they are there. Right now, with only so many hours a day to give to my Writing, I am choosing to focus on the rest of the journey with my new baby, Bright Side of the Road. I feel sure that when the time is right to let go of Bright Side, I will be led to focus on my next big Writing project.
Anne Marie Bennett is a writer, self-taught collage artist, website goddess, cancer survivor and SoulCollage® Facilitator. She received a BS degree in Education from Southern Connecticut State University and has taught people of all ages throughout the East Coast. She has also worked as a bookseller, sheet presser, library assistant, computer consultant, and in theatre management. Anne Marie lives in eastern Massachusetts with her middle-aged husband (also a cancer survivor), two elderly cats and one very playful dog who keeps all of them young-at-heart. She is happiest when she is reading, writing, breathing salt air, dancing, and hugging her beautiful grandchildren.
For more information about Anne Marie’s book, Bright Side of the Road, please visit this page: http://www.annemariebennett.com/
To purchase the book, please visit this page: www.annemariebennett.com/how-to-purchase
Bright Side of the Road is also available on Amazon.com .