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…

Post-Publishing Depression

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.

Publishing Rehab

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,

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25 Comments

  1. Shasta Nelson

    In absolute beautiful honesty you showcase Brene Brown’s belief in the power of vulnerability… this post is so refreshing, courageous, and makes me want to cheer for you all the more. Kudos to you for putting numbers in there, sharing the ups-and-downs of the journey, and for inviting us into your current joy. I’m super proud of you Lissa… from a distance you have one more woman in the throngs who are toasting the success of your life and telling everyone about your revolutionary book. Super happy for you and for all of us who are being blessed by your research and calling. Hugs!

    Reply
  2. T.L. Parks

    I feel that this post was written for me. And yet, it also reminds me that I am not alone in this journey. That so many like myself, are dealing with this “not for the faint of heart” calling or desire to create. So thank you kindly, for sharing your story, it put a smile on my heart.

    Oddly enough, right now I am reading your book, where you are speaking about Creativity and Health, I jotted down some notes on how I dishonor myself when it comes to matters of work and creativity.
    I don’t think that I have ever allowed myself to say, or accept, that I actually enjoy working from home, away from the masses and the commute, and that doing work that I love, and being of service to others is where my bliss lies. And yet, most of my actions reflect otherwise. Job searching and interviewing for work that doesn’t fit me, but pays well…I had to admit to myself that I am happy that many of those opportunities did not materialize for me because it would have truly activated a steady stress response in my body and mind.
    Your story, your life, which you so openly and honestly share, has motivated me to stay true to myself.

    Reply
    • Lissa_Rankin

      Keep the faith, my dear. I believe in you…

      Reply
    • Susan Gallacher-Turner

      I know how you feel … I have had such a hard time saying and accepting that I enjoy working in my studio at home, alone. That my ceramic work is bliss to me has made me feel guilty many times. And when those feelings of guilt and fear build up, I talk about finding a ‘job’ but know in my heart I don’t really want one. The more we can all share these feelings, the more we can all stay true to ourselves.

      Reply
      • T.L. Parks

        Thank you Susan, for sharing your story. I agree, until we can learn to nurture ourselves and others– whose life purpose may not follow a traditional path, so many will continue to suffer. I trace back to when I was younger and how everyone was so proud that I was working in the banking industry. And how I have spent so much of my life, remaining in a field that I do not enjoy, not in the least bit. And I compare that to the times, when I actively pursued my writing or other creative endeavors, and mostly, I either received no support or was asked, “ok, but what about your REAL job?” This topic probably goes much deeper than most think. So again, thanks for opening up and sharing. This is something that so many people need.

        Reply
  3. Lisa Marie Selow

    Thanks so very much for this post. It really helped me to not feel so alone in my journey of hustling. It “only” took me 15 years to get to this point and I’m aware I have about 10 more years to go most likely. During my book process, I let go of so many of my fun things, including music, art, and self-care. Slowly, I’m recovering in mind, body, and spirit. The best thing I’ve done is to let go of patriarchal definitions of success, which are very sperm-y and not so egg-y. As a first-time author, I knew I’d have to hustle my little behind, but truly, I had no idea how exhausted it would make me and how much I would cause my own health to decline. It’s very helpful to read about others’ journeys so that I can choose differently next time around when it comes to writing a book. Thanks for sharing so authentically and with such love. xoxo

    Reply
  4. ADiening

    There is a new corner in my RMT treatment room! Based on your Whole Health Cairn, I have gathered all my favourite books that relate to each category.

    Reply
    • T.L. Parks

      Hi ADiening, I saved a picture of the whole health cairn as my screensaver, lol. I agree having this “big picture” information as a constant reminder is very useful. Your idea is great.

      Reply
      • ADiening

        🙂

        Reply
  5. Susan Gallacher-Turner

    Thanks for so bravely and honestly sharing your creative journey. And for shining the light on how important it is to do the creative work you love even when it isn’t making a living. Yet. As creative person, I can really identify with your passion and pain. As a former advertising person, I can understand the branding issue. As an artist and writer, I also understand your need to reject their branding requirements. My own blog also covers a lot of areas and indeed does not fill a tight market niche. But that’s not my goal. My goal is to show and share that a truly creative life means living a whole life, creatively.

    And now I also know that living my life this way is also a way to a healthy life.

    Reply
  6. Jacquie Hoerler

    Lissa thank you for sharing your amazing journey. I find it so inspiring to learn about what others have gone through to succeed. Your story and wisdom has come into my life just when I have needed it. I have allowed so much stress into my life that I have only been surviving. My husband and I have forgotten how to enjoy life. Now we are beginning to find our way back to being healthy, both physically and spiritually. We know how to do this. We just let the negative part of life get in the way. Sometimes the Universe or God, as I like to think, lets us struggle through trials to see how strong we are. Then, after we have proven ourselves and done all that we can, doors begin to open. I have a phrase I believe in, “faith without works is dead.” It’s nice to know that others struggle also. By sharing our stories and opening up our minds to accept new ideas we can be strengthened and find inner peace.

    Reply
  7. Elisa Lionne

    I love it Lissa! And I can totally relate! I am the writer/artist type and I trust that I’m on the right path even though I don’t know where I’m going. Thank you for always sharing your story so openly with all of us!

    PS: I would love to read “I Don’t Do Men” 😉
    xx Elisa

    Reply
  8. nodules

    I am probably the world’s most ignored writer. I have been booted
    off just about every health forum, scientific blog, Facebook, Whirlpool
    etc. on the web. I was even threatened with legal action if I tried to
    get back onto Breast Cancer.org using another name. About 8 radio
    presenters on the Australian ABC will not post my comments any more.
    Yet I am NOT abusive or off topic.

    I am an unashamed blasphemer
    and a Larmarkist heretic, which may have something to do with the
    problem. I crave credibility like an alcoholic craves booze, as I have
    almost zero and friends, almost zero. I have been living illegally
    camped in a National Park all by myselffor a total of fifteen years,
    sometimes not seeing another human being for up to six weeks, . Status
    wise I have to reach up to touch bottom. I am a refugee in my own land.

    So I must be doing something write.

    Reply
    • nodules

      I’ll make a comment to me to cheer myself up, so that i don’t hang myself just yet. Hello Nodules, how are you. Lousy. That’s good. See what I mean, even I don’t care about me.

      Reply
  9. nodules

    This was a mistake so I’ll put something in it later.

    Reply
  10. ican

    You’re gorgeous Lissa. I love you rock, go, go, go xxx

    Reply
  11. nodules

    13 books in the New Testament by Paul, who was deranged. yet NOT ONE SINGLE WORD written by Jesus. Being groomed for monarch, he must have been literate, probably speaking Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. Why? I’d say it was because what Jesus wrote was seditious, blasphemous and heretical to just about everyone and thus burned. This means that the interpretation of Jesus by Paul, who had so much blood on his hands, was so far divorced from the truth that we can’t take a single word in the NT seriously.

    Jesus must have been totally misunderstood even by those closest to him. “The light shineth in the darkness but the darkness comprehended it not.” “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. ” That could describe me, so I’m in good company.

    Reply
  12. LeahO

    Great advice. It can be hard to be “in the area when so many others are in the stands”. Thank you for sharing your story. I have published 5 books and it is a fun challenge to be my own publicist. Stories like yours keep my spirits up.

    Reply
  13. Sarah McKay

    I’m a very new reader who ended up here after seeing a review of your new book… I’m VERY intrigued & inspired as I’m a neuroscientist, writer, skeptic and just started my own healthy brain blog http://www.yourbrainhealth.com.au
    Your book is ordered…. looking forward to reading the evidence 🙂

    Reply
    • Lissa_Rankin

      Lovely to meet you Sarah!

      Reply
      • Sarah McKay

        Lissa…. Wow.
        So, I’ve been reading your book and I’m convinced you wrote it for me? I’m a PhD trained neuroscientist and sworn skeptic but also oddly obsessed with CAM blogs and understanding why CAM and alternative medicine has such a big follow despite SCIENCE showing time and time again that most treatments are nothing more than placebo. I drive some of my friends crazy with my tirade against CAM & non “scientific-method” thinking (although many of my friends are doctors or scientists so agree with me which just fuels my fire).
        In fact, I started up my blog after months of forehead-slamming my desk day after day reading CAM blogs (your lovely friend Jessica Ainscough being one of them – which was where I first saw reference to you and your book).
        One thing that just drove me mad was trying to explain to CAM folk (for want of a better term to group all those that don’t buy into conventional western science & medicine) that their belief in healing was “all placebo”…. I’d always be saying “It is rubbish – its just placebo” …. “if you believe you can ‘manifest’ ill health, why do you believe you need herbs/homeopathy/woo woo healing’ to be cured … its all placebo”. And of course people would call me close-minded and arrogant etc etc .. ummmmm, I wonder why!???
        Your book has shown me I was both wrong AND right 😉 I think I said on your FB that it is all how you package or market the idea of placebo. It IS placebo and that is what is AMAZING and exiting! I’ve been trying to say that for so long, but saying it in the wrong way. Today I was reading your book and the light went on!
        Anyway, before I rant on for too long, I just wanted to say ‘thank-you’ for writing the book for ME right NOW. It has come at the perfect time and I’m off to bed to read the next chapter. xxxxx from the scientist who has had an awakening today!

        Reply
        • Lissa_Rankin

          You’re right Sarah. I DID write this book for you! Actually, I wrote it for me, because I was that skeptical scientist who believed CAM treatments were, at best wishful thinking, and at worst, plain old snake-oil selling quackery.

          But then I was humbled by my misinformation and had to go public to make it right.

          I wrote this book for you- and for my physician father who instilled all those closed-minded beliefs- and for anyone else who thinks anything is “only placebo.”

          This is all GOOD NEWS Sarah, and it will take people like you and me to help others understand the power of all this.

          Thanks for being in my village!
          Much love
          Lissa

          Reply
  14. Lori

    This is a beautiful story that you shared. Thank you. I’m still in the writing process of my first project and with so many people reminding me of how many fail at this, it gets quite disheartening. With just your one phrase “Keep the faith, dear ones. And don’t ever let the Gremlins keep you from following a dream…” I realized that just finishing my book would be following my dream. Thank you Lissa… you’ve lifted one more writer’s heart with a single post.

    Reply

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