The writer talks about not running away, acting “as if’’ and letting the world in.
Sheryl Kraft is a journalist who writes frequently about health, including her own recovery from breast cancer at age 34. In addition, her essays, articles and opinion have appeared in JAMA, The New York Times, AARP, Weight Watchers, Bottom Line/Health, Bottom Line/Women’s Health, Caring Today, HealthyWomen.org and many others. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College—starting the program at age 48. Her new baby, MY SO-CALLED MIDLIFE, is a blog about … well, click to find out.
MEREDITH: What does beginning feel like? Look like? Does it scare or excite you?
Sheryl: In the beginning, there’s a huge cloud. It’s hovering over me, threatening to pour. And I keep dodging it; opening and closing my umbrella, never quite finding a safe place. It’s scary and totally unsettling. I know I have to make a decision. Once I get tired of running – and sometimes that can take a very long time – I close my umbrella and let the rain soak me. That’s when I know I’ve finally begun – I’m flooded with relief, excitement, and lots of energy.
MEREDITH: You write about health. Does your writing process always feel healthy to you? Is it ahem, ill, sometimes? How do you dedicate yourself to wellness on the page? Or is it okay—or even appropriate—to be under the weather at times?
Sheryl: Usually I can only write when my mind is feeling healthy; i.e. when I’m fully present, inspired, awake and excited about a topic. If I try to force it, it usually falls flat or the words will come out all wrong; the content will be boring and be devoid of real meaning. I’m sure a lot of us infuse our personalities into what we write, so how can we write when we’re not feeling our best? On the other hand, I will contradict myself slightly when I tell you that some of my best writing has come out of adversity. I also write essays, and wrote two that were published (one in JAMA, the other won an award from Redbook) years after I got diagnosed with breast cancer at 34 and subsequently lost my two best friends to the same disease. I think the power of the writing came out of being waaay under the weather; that was when my stormy emotions fueled the creative process and my mind was able to spill out onto the page all the things I needed so desperately to sort out and deal with but couldn’t. And maybe that’s why a lot of us do write; to get our emotions out, somehow.
MEREDITH: Do you trust yourself when you write?
Sheryl: It’s not always entirely easy to trust myself, even with something as simple as making a decision what to order off a menu! That’s why I think the writing process can be so scary at times. I tend to write slowly and will re-write and re-read ad nauseum. When I’m finally feeling physically ill or mentally drained (and that’s no way for a health writer to feel!) I take that as a signal that it’s either time to trash it or send it. But even when I trash it, there are usually a few salvageable nuggets worth saving and working on. It’s not all lost. To totally trust myself I sometimes have to pretend; it’s like smiling when you don’t feel like smiling….eventually your facial muscles will naturally turn into a smile and you’ll start to feel happy.
MEREDITH: How and when do you know in your gut that an idea is viable and worth following? Is there a telling moment for you?
Sheryl: Funny, I answered this question without even knowing what it was, in the last question. I’ll add a few things: when I get excited about an idea and can’t let it go, I know it’s worth following. That’s when all I want to do is write, to the exclusion of just about everything else: I won’t answer the phone, I ignore my husband, my sons, my emails, (in that order), ignore my weak bladder until I have to dash to the bathroom, don’t want to cook and would rather eat stale cereal with sour milk, think only an hour has passed when in reality it’s been four hours. The house could be on fire and I would barely notice. That’s when.
MEREDITH: Where does the process of creativity start for you?
Sheryl: Hmm….that’s a thought-provoking question. Creativity for me seems to be inspired by so many things: the weather, my moods, how I slept the night before, what kinds of crazy dreams I had, a movie I saw or interesting book I read, looking at beautiful art, hearing music, or even in the middle of a mundane task like washing dishes or taking out the recycling. And, of course, there are those random conversations I overhear when I’m on line at Starbucks or the bank or even the supermarket, when I look at things other people have in their baskets. I always make up stories about why they’re buying five boxes of saltines or cases of Dr. Pepper or frozen pizzas. I also find that when I do any type of physical exercise, creativity usually is at its peak. I guess my mind is open and relaxed and I’m allowing just about any thought to enter. But by far, the most creative time I’ve ever had was when I went back to school for my MFA. I’d always loved writing and I wanted to learn it from other writers. So, at 48, when my sons were in high school, I enrolled at Sarah Lawrence. Every minute there was so exciting for me and I was bathed in creativity. I know this might sound a bit exaggerated, but it’s for real! And of course, creativity is naturally sparked by all my past experiences – and being totally open to new ones. Whenever you let the world in, creativity is easily sparked.