I began my career in narrative nonfiction in elementary school, chronicling the adventures of a mouse named Hercules, a classroom pet who was a talented escape artist.
When I was in fifth grade, American Girl magazine bought one of those stories for publication and sent me a check for $25. Once I discovered that you could write and get paid for it, I was hooked. In high school, I was a theater rat. Certain that I’d become an actress or playwright, I went off to Tufts University as a drama major. I loved the theater—I still do—but I could not resist writing cryptic reviews of my professors’ productions. Soon I was back in the journalism game for good.
After college, I went straight to work as the jill-of-all-trades for a tabloid trade journal. As writer, editor, and photographer, I produced 10,000 words a month for an annual salary of $8,000. Several years later, Inc. magazine in Boston hired me to write tidbits for a section called “Ideas You Can Use.” I sweet-talked my editor into letting me go after longer features. After a move to Manhattan, I worked at Barron’s and Money while working up the nerve to go freelance. Over the next decade, I was lucky enough to link elbows with some of the most talented magazine editors in the business at New York Magazine and The New York Times Magazine among many others. These generous folks shaped my writing and taught me everything I know about reporting and telling a story.
When I was twenty-nine, on the West Coast reporting a story and therefore feeling exceptionally cool, I met my husband, Ron Ramin. To the astonishment of everyone I knew back in NYC, I packed up and moved to Los Angeles, where I wrote features for the Los Angeles Times Magazine and a biweekly column for the Herald Examiner about the emotional lives of Los Angelenos. (They do have them.) While developing that column, which was titled “Connecting,” I continued to do extensive reporting, but I also found ways to insert myself into the story, developing a voice and a recognizable style. There was no such thing as email then, so my readers—male and female, young and old—sat down to write me letters, telling me how completely I had “gotten” them. Apparently, they found what I’d written funny, wry, and heartfelt. They were happy to have taken this journey with me as their guide.
Those lighthearted columns were delightful to write, but they showed me that if I could convince a reader to take my hand, I could lead him or her anywhere, no matter how rough the footing. I had my first chance to test this hypothesis in 2003, when I began work on my first book, Carved in Sand: When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife, which was published by HarperCollins four years later. I wrote about my own alarming forgetfulness, taking the reader with me as I underwent ten expert interventions. Styled as narrative non-fiction, it was a lively story, packed with commentary from experts in the field and anecdotes delivered by what I had come to call “the memory-hungry crowd.”
At its essence, Carved in Sand is a book about cognitive neuroscience, requiring the reader to take a deep dive into complex information. But people told me it was amazingly entertaining, a laugh-out-loud page-turner. Many read it in a single sitting or over a weekend, never realizing that between giggles, they were absorbing an awful lot of neurobiology. Carved in Sand made it to No. 5 on Amazon and on to the New York Times bestseller list. My readers wrote me emails and raised their hands when I lectured to groups, begging me to write my next book about sleep. They couldn’t get it, and they were exhausted all the time. I couldn’t sleep either, as they knew very well from the chapter I’d devoted to the subject in Carved in Sand.
I failed to get out of the gate on that sleep book. (For those who are still waiting, a colleague of mine, Patricia Morrisroe, who describes herself as a “fourth-generation insomniac,” published the lively and informative Wide Awake in 2010, just about the time my own manuscript would have been completed.)
Instead, as I flew all over the country, first on a book tour and then as a guest lecturer, speaking to audiences of all sizes, I found myself with a much more immediate problem. I was suffering from back pain and sciatica. It was not new—I’d had back pain since I was a teenager—but it was getting worse. When I gave those talks, I clutched the podium, not because I was nervous, but because I felt like a rodent was gnawing at the base of my spine. In my current condition, I could not countenance the requisite eight hours a day with my buttocks planted in a desk chair, or the misery of living in airplane seats and rental cars, or the discomfort inherent in schlepping bags loaded with books and documents. Before I could take to researching and writing again, I had to find out how to manage—or ideally, abolish—the pain. I wasn’t the only one. Everywhere I went, I met people whose back pain had brought them to their knees.
I began the journey confident that I’d soon discover a suitable strategy for recovery. I envisioned a benign, Carved in Sand–like journey, which I expected to take about eighteen months. About the time I attended my first spine surgery conference, I realized that I’d entered a treacherous realm, where I discovered some very strange bedfellows. Dollar signs ruled, and the Hippocratic oath appeared to have lost all meaning. As the story unfolded, I recognized that I had a major piece of investigative reporting on my hands. Although it took three and a half years to chase it down—and frankly, I still learn something new every day—I was determined not to let it go until I’d answered the myriad questions that affect every patient who suffers from back pain.
The book that emerged is Crooked: Money, Medicine & Manipulation in the Back Pain Industry. I’ve found a passel of answers. I can’t wait to share them with you.
On a personal note, my husband, Ron, and our two sons, Avery and Oliver, now 22 and 18, have (yet again) made it through the deeply challenging experience of living with me while I write a book. I applaud them for their tolerance and patient good humor, even when I’m running around with my hair on fire. In Mill Valley, the little Northern Californian town we call home, we’re practically empty nesters. In a few months, Oliver will leave for the University of Chicago and soon Avery, freshly graduated from New York University, will take up the life of a working stiff, trading commodities for a San Francisco bank. After what seems like a lifetime of juggling a writer’s work and raising a family, it’s quite a transition. I’ll miss the excitement, but in truth, I will live happily without the soggy towels on the carpet. When once again, I go out on the road to speak to readers—this time about how to beat back pain—I won’t have to rush home in time to check the homework or see who has outgrown what. In fact, I’ll be game for a great yoga class, an amazing Feldenkrais session, a glass of wine, or all three. Anyone want to join me?
I'm a member of theAssociation of Health Care Journalists, the National Association of Science Writers, the Journalism and Women's Symposium and IRE, Investigative Reporters and Editors.