Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Interview with memoirist Antoinette Truglio Martin

Writer Antoinette Truglio Martin joins me today to share a bit about her memoir, Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer.

Antoinette Truglio Martin is a speech therapist and special education teacher by training but is a writer at heart. She is the author of the children’s picture book, Famous Seaweed Soup (Albert Whitman & Company) and was a visiting author in schools for several years. She was formerly a regular columnist for Parent Connections (In A Family Way) and Fire Island Tide (Beach Bumming). Personal experience essays and excerpts of her memoir were published in Bridges, Visible Ink, and The Southampton Review. Martin proudly received her MFA in creative writing and literature from Stony Brook/Southampton University in 2016. As a Stage IV breast cancer patient, she does not allow cancer to dictate her life. She lives in her hometown of Sayville, NY with her husband, Matt, and is never far from My Everyone and the beaches she loves.

Welcome, Antoinette. Please tell us about your current release.
Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer is a memoir about my first year with breast cancer. As a well-documented wimp, having to have to manage the treatment protocols and the emotional upheavals while keeping my life somewhat normal was going to be an incredible feat. I did not believe myself to be brave enough. It was my community of family and friends—My Everyone—and the power of the written word that honed the courage I needed.

I journaled through that first year of cancer treatment in a shabby notebook. Cancer didn't deserve a pretty journal. Because it was so difficult to talk about and repeat what was going to happen and would have happened, I found that emailing my family and friends to be so much easier. I did not have to articulate or hear the cancer words. The writing also helped me see what was important and strive to be part of the story rather than a sad sidebar.

I have a large posse who were genuinely wanted to know how I was doing. I have daughters, a husband, parents, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, in-laws, and a sea of aunts, uncles, and cousins. My friend circles not only include colleagues and neighbors but also those I have kept up with since high school and college. There were a lot of people. There was a lot email.

I saved the journal and emails with the plan that I could write a light, whimsical book about breast cancer. It would make a funny, great book. The problem was when I started to compile and begin the process; I re-lived the fear all over again. Cancer was not a whimsical journey. So, I put everything away, never wanting to face cancer again.
Almost five years after treatment, cancer did return. I now have metastatic breast cancer—Stage IV. There is no cure. It's forever. I was really scared and so much wimpier. I dug up that shabby journal and those emails. This time, I disregarded the idea of whimsical. I focused on being honest and included the authentic voices from the emails. With the help of my advisers and fellow writing students at Southampton College MFA program and my mentor from the Visible Ink Writers project at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, I was able to start and finish the manuscript.

What inspired you to write this book?
I was inspired to write the book when I was diagnosed with the Stage IV cancer. At first looking back over my journal and emails help me see that I really was brave because of the incredible love and support from My Everyone. They made sure I was going to be part of the life story.

It was hard to write. I didn't want to confront that fear again especially now that it is so much more serious, and I am going to have to live with it. But it was a good exercise. I understood what I needed to do. And I have been very fortunate, so very fortunate that this new tumor was caught so early before any real damage. So far, treatment has not been debilitating nor does it intrude on every day too much. I can make the cancer a story in my life; not the story of my life.

As I was writing and sharing excerpts and pieces, I was given kind and constructive feedback. Many exclaimed that this is a story needed to be told. This was a story that was important. It could offer so much hope to so many. It is not only for women with breast cancer. It is pertinent to all women, men, and the families and friends who have been touched by cancer. I hope that my book gives others hope and courage to reach out to their communities and live a life full of stories.

Excerpt from Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer:
The phone was problematic. I cringed every time I said or heard the words biopsy, cancer, and tumor. It was grueling being cheerful while the reality of my situation bore down on my fragile calm. But I had sisters, my mother, and close friends to inform. I needed them.

Over the previous few years, I had used e-mail as my preferred mode for quick communications. I had never been very chatty on the phone, even with my closest friends. Email allowed me to keep close with people whom I could not see on a regular basis. It allowed me to send quick messages, letters of encouragement, and carefully crafted words of advice and gratitude so much more thoughtfully than I ever could in my stumbling dialogue. I quickly realized that this was another time when e-mail would most likely serve me best.

So, that first night, I stayed up late (sleep was evading me anyway) to write a light e-mail to my sisters. What a relief to type the words without listening to them!

From: Antoinette
To: Barbara, Irene
Date: Thursday, February 8, 2007 at 3:52 a.m.
Subject: FYI
I am sorry, but I cannot make any more phone calls. I am sure that you have already heard through the rapid-fire grapevine that a biopsy I had was positive. So I am on a journey I didn’t sign up for. The good news is that it is small, and I am in good hands at the NYU Clinical “C” Center. I think this will be a nuisance—a bump in the road more than anything else. I’m OK, Matt is OK. The girls were told (worst part), and Mom and Dad are OK too. So, right now, we are OK. I will keep you in the loop. Take care of yourselves.
Hug everyone you know.

From: Barbara
To: Antoinette
Date: Thursday, February 8, 2007 at 12:03 p.m.
Subject: FYI
You are right—this is an annoyance, not a catastrophe! While you are under the knife, do you want anything tucked? (hehehe) OK, stress makes this stuff so much worse, so plenty of time in the hot tub and being pampered is prescribed. Kisses!

From: Irene
To: Antoinette
Date: Thursday, February 8, 2007 at 7:01 p.m.
Subject: FYI
Yes, Mary did call last night. In talking with my cancer patients, it seems that the waiting is the hardest part. Imagination is a powerful thing. But with the size of the mass and your rapid access to the right MDs, it sounds like your description, a bump in the road, is perfect. I am sure telling the girls was the most difficult thing to do. Running home is probably the first thing they wanted to do. I hope they are OK. Thank you for keeping me posted. Your phone must be ringing off the hook with information seekers. E-mail works for me. Let me know when the surgery is scheduled. Lots of LOVE and positive thoughts.
P.S. I hope you are journaling the journey you did not sign up for.

Journaling the journey? My sisters knew that I scribbled in pretty covered notebooks. From my earliest memory, I had always said, “I want to be a writer when I grow up.” But a practical life robbed me of the time and energy necessary to be a true writer. I’d had a few essays published and wrote regular columns for a couple of local papers. My proudest writing accomplishment thus far had been a children’s book, Famous Seaweed Soup. What a thrill to see my story illustrated so beautifully, bound and sitting on library shelves and children’s laps. As incredible as it was, I soon learned that one cannot quit the day job after writing one children’s book. My other children’s stories languished in a box, filed alongside stacks of rejection letters. I let writing become a hobby rather than the calling it began as—one that grew dimmer as grownup responsibilities mounted. But journaling remained a constant in my life. I aimed to write daily but typically managed to do so only sporadically.

Irene was right. I should journal this journey I did not sign up for. It could be a way to navigate through this nightmare without having to say the words out loud. Cancer did not deserve a pretty notebook with a ribbon to mark my place. I dug a cheap spiral notebook out of a drawer. Perfect. I would dog-ear the pages to mark my place. Here I could rant, ramble, recount, list questions, and scribble notes. Hopefully, writing in this journal would relieve all the chatter in my head and keep cancer out of earshot.

Photo credit: 
Titus Kana
What exciting story are you working on next?
I have been collecting family stories. My website, Stories Served Around the Table, features the stories that have been told and retold. I am fascinated by my family’s immigrant tales and how my parents grew up in Brooklyn. My mother’s side of the family had incredible stories. They may have been tough people to like, but they were wonderful storytellers.

I am currently developing one story into a historical fiction novel or series of short stories. It is a story of my great-great grandmother, a Strega (witch), living in the cusp of a new century. I have heard her story all my life. Now that I have started to put the story on paper, I see the gaps of history and place I need to research. A trip to Sicily is in order. I am very excited to get lost in the whole process.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I had a small home business called Playin’ Pals: Playgroups for Infants, Toddlers, and Moms. My husband, Matt, finished the basement, built child-sized chairs and folding tables, did the plumbing and electricity and sheet rocked the walls It was a fabulous playroom with a separate entrance, paint and dress-up stations, building toys, small library, and a huge craft closet. Children and their moms came to play and learn together. My daughters and I had a community of friends we enjoyed. It was a very fun business.

I worked the whole operation on a very tight shoestring. I was the director, planner, go-fer, cleaning service, teacher, accountant (my weakest skill) and counselor. After my daughters had their good-night stories and kisses, I spent nights prepping for the morning. There were always shapes to cut out, finger puppets to find, glue bottles to fill.

My advertising budget was extremely small. It was the 80s—pre-social media era. I made flyers by hand and copied them on an old hand-cranked ditto machine—ah, I can still smell the crystal violet. I strolled my daughters in shopping carts and weaved through the grocery store parking lots leaving the flyers on the windshields of cars with car seats in them.

My best advertising campaign came from a freebie periodical called, Parent Connections. The owner/publisher/editor/saleswoman/distributor, gave me a quarter page ad space in exchange for an article on anything about parenting. The column was called In A Family Way. Writing personal essays for Parent Connections was my inaugural writing gig. Although I was not paid in much needed money, I was compensated in advertisement and confidence. The first time I saw my musings in print sealed my ambition to be a writer.

Do you write full-time?
I am a teacher and speech therapist by day, a homemaker and wife in late afternoons and long-distant Nonny. Sleep is over-rated. I strive to get a few morning pages written early in the morning. Journaling observations, gratitude, fear, complaints, and rants is important. I squeeze in an hour here and there in the evenings. I get a lot of writing done on a Sunday. I am most productive during the summer when I am off from school. I am also part of a writing circle of three women. We meet every two weeks or so to discuss our projects, share what we have written. It gives me a deadline, and I so value their writer’ eye and friendship.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I have to write my first drafts by hand. I use a pad of paper or notebook. I need the motor component to keep me attentive and feeling that I am writing. I am a slow reader and terrible speller; a learning quirk I share with three of my four siblings and many cousins. Truth be told, I do not type well at all. My style is just one step up from the hunt and peck method. All of these create a labored writer, but I still want to do it.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to be a writer, always. I used to write little stories and poems while my sisters preferred TV. I loved epic stories set in a far-away time and place.

Anything additional you want to share with
I have been told that this cancer in me is supposed to be forever, but I am not buying it. I truly believe a cure will be found in my life time. Such incredible strides have been realized in just the past ten years. Research and science are so close. I may be walking around with a time bomb, but I have not been given a specific expiration date. This is now true for so many Stage IV patients. I would like to ask your readers to support the research and science efforts in making it possible to kick metastatic cancer out of our life stories.


Thanks for being my guest today!

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