When her son was diagnosed with a brain tumor at 11, Karen began writing about his medical odyssey, but it wasn’t until years later that she would return to her memoir, pivoting to focus on her history of people pleasing and its impact on her parenting.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, in a devoutly Catholic family where I learned blessed are the meek for they do not make waves.
My white, middle-class upbringing by two college-educated parents was privileged in many ways, none more impactful than knowing I was loved. Our family values were tricky, though. Love for others took priority over love for self. That message and others I internalized in childhood set the stage for the many acts of my life.
I met my husband Michael in our senior year at Catholic University of America and married him in 1982. We settled in his hometown in upstate NY, where Michael went on to become a registered architect. To compliment my BA in psychology, I earned my MS in community health education, and applied those skills in elementary schools as a counselor, and later in worksite health promotion. Our two sons, Matthew and Stephen, have grown and flown, leaving Michael and I happily empty-nested.
Not that there weren’t bumps along the way. In fact, there were mountains. In 1997, when our firstborn, Matthew, was eleven, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I regretted not having spoken up more strongly when his symptoms started three years earlier, but I was raised to be a nice girl, and nice girls don’t question authority. Although Matthew was expected to “bounce back,” his cognitive deficits proved difficult to overcome, and, in 2001, I left my school counseling job to mentor him through high school.
It’s a long story—it would take a book to tell it all. So, that’s what I decided to do. Despite not having written anything more creative than a resume in 30 years, I started writing a memoir—a mother’s story of her child’s medical mystery. At least, I thought that was my story.
Matthew graduated from high school—then college, to my surprise. But in the real world, his spotty short-term memory and difficulty grasping instructions bounced him from job to job. Meanwhile, I went back to work in 2008. Expecting my adult son would need financial support forever, I was glad to have an income again. I stopped working on my book because I was too busy, and because I didn’t know how, or if, the story would end.
When did you start to think about making a change?
My aha moment happened in a parking lot. In 2016, at the peak of my career, finally making decent money for the first time, I developed some complications from lifelong IBS which made it impossible for me to continue in my job.
After my colorectal surgeon told me of the latest development, I got dressed and checked out in a haze. I felt like some other person—a sick person—as I rode down the elevator and trudged past the gift shop. When I reached the lobby, I put on my sunglasses to avoid eye-contact.
Then I stepped out into the parking lot, and the brilliant September sun. Instantly, this thought exploded in my head: “I am going to have such a great life.”
I didn’t generate the thought. And I didn’t hear a “voice,” as some people describe, nor did it feel like God spoke to me.
It was simply the truth making itself known. And, by the time I reached my car, I realized the universe had handed me a gift: time to finish my book.
What is your next act?
I am a writer—four simple words that evoked a bad case of imposter syndrome until recently.
When I opened the universe’s gift and my old book files with 300 pages already written, I figured in six months, my memoir would be done. In the meantime, I started a blog and got a few personal essays published. My chronic health issues often ate up many hours of my day, and the more I learned about writing memoir, the more I realized I had to learn. Five years later, I finally finished my manuscript and embraced the title “writer.”
As I revised my pages and rethought my story, I realized my memoir wasn’t about my son’s brain tumor after all. It was about me and my inability to be assertive at a time when my son had needed me to be strong.
My working title became Portrait of a People-Pleaser and the Son Who Paid the Price, a memoir about a deferential mother, her mysteriously ill son, and the far-from-benign character flaw that nearly destroyed them. My manuscript is completed and I’m currently querying literary agents.
It’s hard to be proud of the admission that I failed my son. So my writing itself—sculpting the actual words—is less about love than about a twofold purpose: 1. to enlighten others, and 2. to be accountable to myself. When I see my truth in black and white—such as how hard it is for me to ask a grocery bagger to put the eggs on the top, I can’t hide or be complacent anymore. I can’t not change. I must do better, and I have. Just yesterday, a plumber came to unclog our kitchen drain, and it was so easy to ask him, “Would you mind pulling up your mask?”
Beyond the actual writing, developing my brand as a recovering people-pleaser—and figuring out what I’m going to do with that brand—is indeed a labor of love. When an idea or a plan crystallizes, it’s more titillating than a schoolgirl crush. For example, I recently nailed down a mission statement: to facilitate dialogue among and about people-pleasers, because sharing our truth is the first step in becoming emboldened. Then a tagline for my website: I write my story to become emboldened. I share my story to embolden you.
And “Become Emboldened” became the umbrella under which I offer my programs: a webinar (Wipe Your Feet Before You Walk All Over Me), focus groups, and mother-daughter dialogues. Be still my fluttering heart! And, since I’m not in this for the money, these programs are all free.
How hard was it to take the plunge?
Leaving my job and the decision to finish my book were spontaneous—a no-brainer, as I mentioned. But hitting “post” on my first blog and going public on social media felt like plastering my vulnerabilities on a highway billboard. As for preparation, there was little. Within a month of leaving my job, I was up and running, so I just plunged, prayed, and learned as I went.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family and friends verbally expressed support but only sometimes or once-in-a-blue-moon or never read my blogs. I’m not alone in that. Many writers say their families rarely read their published work, whether it appears in a blog or elsewhere, other than the New York Times, perhaps. Often, I felt hurt. But I chose to reframe what happened. It was my job as a writer to draw in my reader, no matter who they were. And if I couldn’t draw in loved ones, I’d work on drawing in others.
How is Matthew doing and how does he feel about your memoir?
I didn’t tell Matthew about my beginnings of a book until a couple of years after his surgery. One afternoon, he sat next to me on our blue loveseat watching a story on Oprah about a mother and her sick child.
“Mom,” he said, looking at me, “we could be on Oprah.”
I sniffed-in my tears, gave him a side hug and said, “Yes, Matthew, we could.”
After the show, I told him about “the book.” He wagged his head in delight, eyes aglow. I could tell he pictured himself, as I did, sitting on Oprah’s stage. Today, we’re each better at managing our expectations, but at 34, Matthew still shares my dream of publication.
In 2016—the year my health promotion career ground to a stop—nearly two decades since his surgery, Matthew’s recovery leapt into action. As I write in my memoir: “like a rusty pendulum clock coming back to life, everything started to tick. Each cog of every gear in his brain nudged the next one so the machine that was Matthew began to purr.”
For the rest of his inspiring recovery, as well as my own, I hope someday you’ll read every page-turning word.
What challenges are you encountering?
All I wanted in my next act was to finish my memoir and get it published. I had no idea how much that would involve. Prior to creating my website and blog, I couldn’t have told you with confidence what a search engine or a hashtag was, or how to check my laptop storage or download an app. The technology learning curve was and continues to be steep. And I found out that writers have to self-promote. Had I known, I might have taken up knitting instead.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
That I’m stronger than I thought. In fact, I may even be stronger than my outspoken, fearless, bad-ass friends, because, for them, strength is easy—it’s who they are. But if by nature and nurture you’re a doe, like me, being strong is antithetical to who you are. Fierceness isn’t part of your DNA. It isn’t part of mine. Yet, I weathered a life-altering storm, and every day, I refuse to let my chronic illness or my good-girl upbringing define me.
Last year, when I took the step of querying literary agents for my memoir, I wrote to an editor friend, “I’ll never think of myself as weak again.”
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
Short answer—No. Long answer—Nope. I truly have this sense that my next act has unfolded the way it was intended. And, going forward, whatever happens is meant to happen. That confidence wanes at least weekly, but only for a moment, then the universe reminds me what it said in the parking lot, and my heart tells me I’m doing exactly what I should be doing at this point in my life.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
I like to say, “I’m open to the possibility.” So, no matter what your fears and doubts and self-limiting beliefs, be willing to be open to possibilities that you can’t even imagine at the start. Not just regarding success, but regarding what your next act will look like for you—what your purpose is. Several years ago, when my book editor said I should look for speaking opportunities or teach a class, I couldn’t imagine what those could possibly be. But with time, it became so obvious—my Become Emboldened programs—it was hard to believe I hadn’t always known.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your career/reinvention path?
Don’t quit your day job. Very few writers are financially successful enough to support themselves. I was fortunate that my husband’s salary could support us, but if you’re the breadwinner, keep that income stream. If your writing and related projects hit it big, then you can jump ship from your previous career.
Find a writer’s critique group in your genre. Other than professional, MFA-qualified editors, a writer who has only written fiction may lead a nonfiction writer—especially a memoirist—astray, and vice versa. To find a critique group, check your local library system, indie bookstore, and coffeeshops, Meet-up, Poets and Writers Groups, YouWriteOn.com, and the Facebook groups listed below. As you network with other writers IRL (in real life) and online, ask for suggestions.
Talk less, listen more when you receive critiques. IRL, if you tell a joke, and have to explain the punch line, you’ve not told it well. The same goes for your story—if you have to explain to a reader what you’ve written, your words haven’t done their job, and you haven’t met the expectations of a writer. Look at critique as an opportunity to hone your craft.
Your opinion about your own writing counts twice as much as the opinion of others. If two people don’t like it, but two do, your gut is the tie-breaker—go with it.
Give more than you take. There’s a concept of good literary citizenship, meaning to promote other writers, and comment and engage with them. This increases your “writer karma.” Your own self-promotion should always be dwarfed by your celebration of others.
Think less about building a platform than about building a bridge. (Taken from “Writer’s Bridge,” below.)
Read insatiably in your genre. Then read a piece or a book again, studying it for technique. Compare a piece/book you think is well-written to one you think is poorly written. What differentiates them? Read some more.
What resources do you recommend for would-be writers?
Binders Facebook groups: In Facebook’s search bar, type “binders,” and you’ll find myriad private (usually) groups for women and gender non-conforming writers. “The Binders” is the main, and largest group, with about 46,000 members. There are subgroups for just about every facet of writing you can imagine, Binders Building Platform being one of my favorites. The support and information is incredible, but read and follow the guidelines carefully for each group, and consider “lurking” for a while before you post to get a feel for the group’s dynamics.
Twitter: The writing community on Twitter is amazingly supportive. Search #Writingcommunity, #amwriting, #writerscommunity. Or follow me at @KarenDeBonis. If you tweet that you read this interview, and tag me, I’ll do a #writerslift to give you some “Twitter traction.”
Websites and webinars
(For any of these sites you find useful, look on their pages for links to their social media handles and follow them there, too.)
Jane Friedman – Online classes, a blog, and a wealth of information on writing and the publishing world. Jane is a rockstar in the writing community and publishing industry.
Writers in the Storm – A blog by various writers, packed with information and inspiration on writing craft.
Writer’s Digest – Writers helping writers improve their craft, achieve their goals, and recognize their dreams.
The Writer Magazine – Instructs, informs, and inspires writers, providing practical coverage of the craft of writing and of the publishing industry.
The Writing Cooperative – Provides advice and encouragement for writers of all genres.
Poets and Writers – The nation’s largest nonprofit organization serving creative writers.
Allison K. Williams – Offers retreats, virtual intensives, editing services. Another rockstar.
Writers Bridge – Courses and a free twice-monthly Zoom chat focused on finding and engaging with your audience.
Books on craft
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.
Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. (Also useful for memoir)
Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book by Allison K. Williams. (Forthcoming in May 2021. You can preorder here)
How about resources for those interested in learning more about overcoming people pleasing?
Twitter: #Peoplepleasing #peoplepleaser #peoplepleasernomore
Most mainstream publications occasionally feature articles on people-pleasing, from the New York Times to the Huffington Post to Oprah. One way to quickly peruse the latest is to set a Google alert. It’s so simple, even pre-blogger me could have done it!
Helen Snape. Relationship coach for people-pleasers, (primarily women.)
The Society for Recovering Doormats. This is not a very active site but if you subscribe, you’ll receive an interactive workbook, which has good suggestions.
Dr. Robert Glover: Book, online support group, podcast – all for men. Focused on dating and relationships.
Bonus: A fun graphic.
The Disease to Please: Curing the People-Pleasing Syndrome by Harriet B. Braiker Ph.D. My “bible” of people-pleasing.
Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Henry Cloud and John Townsend. Best of the books with a Christian perspective.
The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It — And Mean It and Stop People-pleasing Forever by Susan Newman. (See also: The Book of No: 365 Was…)
The Life-changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight. Don’t use if you’re offended by the “F” word!
I Wanted Fries with That by Amy Fish. How to complain, primarily in business transactions.
What’s next for you?
When my book is published, I’ll dedicate at least a year to promoting it. I may have another book or two in me—a workbook using the concepts I teach in my Wipe Your Feet webinar, and perhaps a memoir in essays about my history of binge-eating disorder. Or maybe I’ll be a grandma by then and will “retire.”