Following Your Dreams is Easy–Said No One
My writer’s journey began in 2007, when I left my stable, lucrative career as a physician to pursue my dream of being a professional writer. My behavior seemed pretty reckless to those who loved me. I gave up a six figure income and my house in San Diego with a view of the ocean and cashed in my retirement account so I could buy my freedom (to quit my job, I had to pay a $120,000 malpractice tail in case I ever got sued in the future.)
My husband was unemployed, we had a newborn baby, and my backup plan was…well, not exactly backed up. But I did it. I took a leap of faith and spent the next year writing a memoir called I Don’t Do Men: Confessions of an OB/GYN. After loads of rejections, one literary agent finally loved it and swore that she would get in a “monkey knife fight” to represent my book. So I named her “Monkey Barbara,” and we high-fived over cocktails about the six-figure book deal we would get for the book Monkey Barbara jokingly called “Eat, Pray, Vagina.”
Only that didn’t happen. In fact, we didn’t get any book deals. Eight editors loved it, and eight marketing departments said they’d never heard of me, that I had no platform, and that it didn’t matter how good my writing was if they couldn’t sell it.
I was crushed. Finally, after a year of rejections, Monkey Barbara and I had a tearful release ceremony while drinking margaritas as I tore my manuscript into strips of paper, burned them, and tossed the ashes into the ocean. (Melodramatic – yes. Cathartic – yes.)
Enter Owning Pink
Monkey Barbara told me I had to start a blog if I wanted a career as a writer. This news left me fuming. I was already a doctor, a professional artist, and a writer. Now I had to become a blogger? WTF?
But Barbara insisted. So in 2009, I started a blog I called Owning Pink, named after an art series I had done several years earlier. When asked what my blog would be about, I answered, “Creativity, spirituality, health, sexuality, money, the environment, business, mental health – you know, everything that makes you whole.” I was promptly told this wouldn’t work, that I had to pick a niche. I refused and went about creating a website featuring over forty bloggers that left branding experts using me as a case study for how not to brand yourself.
What’s Up Down There?
Three months after launching my website and establishing myself on social media, I had attracted a large audience, and one of the eight editors who rejected my memoir reached out to Monkey Barbara with an idea for a book she wanted me to write. It wasn’t the book I dreamed of writing. Her idea was for a Q&A type book about all the questions you’d only ask your gynecologist if she were your best friend – which was great, only I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into a gynecology box.
But who was I to argue with the chance to finally publish a book – any book? So I agreed to take on the project. We called it What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend.
I wrote a book proposal and a few sample chapters, and the book wound up going to auction, but in a “best bid” blind auction, four publishing houses all offered the same advance of $15,000. Monkey Barbara and I were disappointed. It was a far cry from the six-figure dream we’d had for I Don’t Do Men. The head of one of the publishing houses said, “Nobody cares about vaginas.” WHAT? Barbara and I were outraged.
But ultimately Barbara said, “Well, that must be what it’s worth,” and we accepted the offer from the editor at St. Martin’s Press.
When Book Sales Are Disappointing
In 2010, I worked my patooty off to promote What’s Up Down There? I got a sponsor who paid to send me to colleges around the country, where I spoke to large audiences of young women, who had the opportunity to anonymously ask me what was up down there for themselves. I hired a private publicist. I did what I could to leverage my online audience. I spent five months speaking on stages and in book stores around the country.
But it soon became clear that the publisher was right. Really, nobody cared about vaginas, and book sales were slow, in spite of all the work I’d done to promote the book.
Why were book sales so slow? The answer is probably multi-pronged. The reality is that most books never pay out even small advances, that books are hard to sell, that people are infinitely distracted, and that bestsellers are rare. But it’s probably more than that. My blog was more about learning to live and love fearlessly than it was about gynecology. I had an audience, but my book was too much of a departure from what my audience had come to expect from me. If my book had been called Owning Pink, it might have been an easier sell…
January 2011 was a dark time. I told people I had PPD (post-publishing depression.) All my dreams of New York Times bestseller stardom vanished. I was now officially $200,000 in debt. I had a large online platform but hadn’t figured out how to monetize it. And the next book I had written, another memoir I called Broken: One Doctor’s Search For The Lost Heart Of Medicine, was offered an $18,000 advance by my publisher. When I turned it down, Monkey Barbara ditched me, saying, “I did the best I could for you, and it’s not enough.” And she was right. I couldn’t afford to publish another book for only $18,000. I had a family to support, and she understood that. She was getting million dollar advances for fiction clients but barely scraping by with her nonfiction clients. She decided to focus exclusively on fiction and release me to find an agent who was a better fit. We agreed to break up and stay in love. I will be forever indebted to Monkey Barbara for taking a chance on an unknown writer and giving me a shot, but it was time for us to (painfully) part ways.
Suffice it to say that things weren’t looking good for my writing career. Now I had no medical practice, no publisher, no agent, no money, and a poor track record with book sales. When I started interviewing other agents, they told me I needed publishing rehab because no publisher was going to give me a big phat book deal with my BookScan sales numbers as low as they were.
What did they mean by publishing rehab? Was I going to have to 12 step my way to writing success?
Pretty much. According to the agents I interviewed, in order to get a big enough advance to pay the bills, I needed to either:
- Land my own television show
- Grow my online audience even bigger
- Come up with a revolutionary idea for a book that had never been written and would capture the public imagination (think Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey)
I was tempted to follow the downward spiral concocted by my mind, one that would have led me to throw in the towel on my writing dreams and crawl back to my hospital job with my tail between my legs. But instead, I prayed for a miracle. And The Universe delivered.
The Whole Health Cairn
I was hiking on the California coast where I live when I had a vision, a crystal clear vision of a new wellness model based on the stacks of balanced stones you tend to see marking beaches and sacred landmarks. I hightailed it back to my house and drew the image I had seen. The vision was one of 10 stones that make up something called “whole health.” It was based on my belief that in order to be optimally healthy – and to heal yourself – you have to have not only good physical health habits, but also healthy relationships, a healthy professional life, a healthy sex life, a healthy spiritual life, a healthy creative life, a healthy living environment, and much more. (Click here to see the image of my whole health cairn).
I called it the Whole Health Cairn, and it became the foundation for the book I wound up writing about it,Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. I was still dating agents at that point. None had been willing to commit to me because my writing career hadn’t been looking so hot. But one agent – Michele – had continued to offer me guidance.
So I called Michele and told her about my book idea. I told her that when I was working with sick patients from the inner city of Chicago, it made sense that they weren’t healthy. They ate poorly, smoked, drank, and never exercised. But then I took a job at an integrative medicine practice in posh Marin County, where my patients religiously followed organic, vegan diets, worked out with personal trainers, got eight hours of sleep every night, took their vitamins, and spent a fortune on the best health care money can buy – and they were still sick. It got me wondering, what if there’s more to health than what they taught me in medical school?
Around that time, I became fascinated with case studies in the medical literature of spontaneous remissions from seemingly “incurable” illnesses – stage 4 cancers that disappeared, an HIV positive patient who became HIV negative, people whose heart disease vanished. I got curious whether there was any scientific validity to what some New Age gurus teach – that you can heal yourself. I wondered whether we might have control over whether we’re blessed with spontaneous remission from illness – or whether we stay sick. (Spoiler alert – you can influence the outcome!)
The Whole Health Cairn turned out to be the missing link that tied together everything I had been blogging about for two years at that point. Suddenly, I was able to tie together evidence that one could live an optimally healthy life and make their body ripe for spontaneous remission – and I could prove it in the medical literature! In that moment, Mind Over Medicine was born.
Publishing Rehab Success
Turns out my idea was revolutionary enough to serve as publishing rehab. (Thank you for the miracle, Universe!) The book proposal went to auction, I was offered six-figure advances, and I chose to go with Hay House because they were so ideologically aligned (plus, more than any other publisher, they’re really making efforts to keep up with a rapidly changing industry.) Hay House has since offered me a second book deal for my next book The Fear Cure: Cultivating Courage As Medicine For The Body, Mind, and Soul.
I birthed Mind Over Medicine into the world on May 7, and it debuted this week on the New York Times Bestseller’s List. Although it was sometimes painful – and at one point, it looked like I was going to be more of a cautionary tale than an inspiration, I survived and am now savoring the fruits of many years of faith in the path, even when it was hard to see much light on the horizon. For years, my motto was “I’m on the right path, even though I don’t know where I’m going.”
As I breathe in the reality that my writing dreams have finally come true, I get to finally relax into the knowledge that it all happened in perfect timing, in just the right way, right when the world was ready to hear what I was writing about, and there’s simply no way to rush the Universe.
This business of writing professionally is not for the faint of heart, and it takes a lot of courage to keep putting yourself out there, staring rejection or failure in the face, and holding onto a dream, in spite of it all.
Albert Einstein said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” Having slayed many dragons in my own writer’s journey, it’s now clear to me that resilience and trust are key. A friend once asked me how I endured the evil nothings of the Gremlins when I was in what I came to call “the narrow place.” And I told her I clung to an unerring faith that the Universe is a friendly place, that I am being guided, and that, no matter what happens, I’ll always land butter side up.
And so will you. So don’t ever give up, especially if you, like me, are the artist/writer type. This creative life is incredibly rewarding – and so much freakin’ fun! But it’s not easy to be “in the arena,” as Brené Brown says in Daring Greatly, when many others are in the stands, watching and judging us. (Sign up here to listen to a FREE telejam with me and Brené Brown next week riffing about Daring Greatly, Mind Over Medicine, and how vulnerability affects your health.)
Keep the faith, dear ones. And don’t ever let the Gremlins keep you from following a dream…
With love and faith in your own hero’s journey,
Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. She is on a grass roots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself. Lissa blogs at LissaRankin.com and also created two online communities - HealHealthCareNow.com and OwningPink.com. She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.