Karma Brown is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer whose first novel, Come Away with Me, released just a few weeks ago, when I was on book tour and 1st Books was on hiatus–so I’m delighted to host her today. Lori Nelson Spielman says of Karma’s debut, “Fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love will flock to this novel….” And she’s sharing one of the most moving posts I’ve had to pleasure to run here. – Meg
Karma Brown: Write it Down, Make it Real
A few months ago a writer and editor friend of mine died – unexpectedly, in her sleep, of a brain aneurysm. She was 41. She was also a mother, a fantastic writer and whip-smart editor, and a closet novelist who had a near finished book lingering in her computer files.
Between emails about parenting pitches and motherhood, we chatted about our novels and the struggle to carve out space in our busy lives to write. She found my daily 5am writing time barbaric; I marveled at how she wrote anything while also managing her chaotic day job. For both of us, family came first, but the itch to write fiction was hard to ignore. I told her getting a novel published was on my “bucket” list, and that I hoped I’d get a chance to cross it off. She assured me I would.
I was halfway into my 41st year when I signed my book deal. Now, one month before I turn 43, my book has hit shelves and I can (finally) cross item #34 — Write a novel, get it published – off my list. I’ve thought about my friend’s age and her unfinished novel often in the days since she died. And when I do, I’m reminded of the time I wasn’t sure I’d be around long enough to see item #34 happen.
I started this wish list when I was 17, long before the term “bucket list” came to be used. On it were things like, Become a television news anchor (my childhood dream job), Take cooking classes in Paris, and Skydive (I have since removed that one – it sounded cool at 17, back when I believed I was invincible). Over the years the list grew as I added experiences, destinations, and goals. At the same time I started knocking items off, always keeping a copy nearby. The list was motivating, and fun to dream about. But it took on even more meaning when I was diagnosed with cancer, a few months after my 30th birthday.
I had Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the “good” kind of cancer, they told me. Good, I suppose, because it carried an 84% chance of 5-year survival. But in truth, no cancer is “good” – I was bald from chemotherapy, have permanent effects from the radiation, and wasn’t able to carry my own child. But I have celebrated 12 more birthdays since that day, so that is good. Shortly after my diagnosis I pulled out the small, handmade notebook that held my list and looked at how many things I wanted to do. Suddenly faced with the prospect of a “good” cancer that could still kill me, I saw the list differently. I wanted to cram as much life as I could into however many years I had left, which hopefully will be many, many more.
Come Away with Me was in part inspired by my cancer experience – by the idea of finding a new normal when life throws you a pretty major curveball. Each of the experiences Tegan and Gabe have – Elephants painting in Thailand, Cooking Class in Italy, and Learning to surf in Hawaii – came directly from my own bucket list, and the Jar of Spontaneity from the book (the glass vase that holds their wishes) is a real thing: my husband and I have a similar jar, though it’s a bit dusty now and I should probably do something about that.
There are about 120 items on my current list – many of which I’ve already ticked off. Like, Eat a bug, on purpose (surprisingly, not bad), Be a “book” in a Human Library Project, and Visit Pompeii. Some have been easy (Learn to make pie crust from scratch), while others have been hard won (see item #34). But above all, this list is more than a collection of items … it’s a reminder that life is chock full of experiences waiting to be taken advantage of, and that the best way to start making them real is to write them down. – Karma