From “Quote Your Sources” to the Inner Journey of Memoir

By Cheryl Krauter

Sometimes I joke that I write books that no one really wants to read. Let me explain.

My first book, Surviving the Storm: A Workbook for Telling Your Cancer Story, grew out of my personal experience with a diagnosis of an aggressive breast cancer in 2007. I endured a brutal treatment of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, often known on the street as “being cut, poisoned, and burned.” As I am a depth psychotherapist, I began to search for ways to process this trauma with the hope that I might find not only healing but meaning in the experience I had lived through. When this fell flat, I decided that I would use both my professional knowledge and my exposure to what it is like to receive a cancer diagnosis, undergo cancer treatment, and then emerge into the world as a cancer survivor with a prognosis that wasn’t all that great, and write the book I had wanted for myself. I offered a resource for people who have been diagnosed with cancer, as well as their partners, caregivers, and communities. While I know that this book has helped people heal and find themselves anew, most folks, if given a choice, would rather not have to open its pages at all.

Psychosocial Care of Cancer Survivors: A Clinician’s Guide and Workbook for Providing Wholehearted Care came into being as a companion volume to Surviving the Storm. It addresses the vital need for clinicians working in oncology to provide humanistic care for their patients while highlighting the necessity for clinicians to attend to their own needs as they work in a system with the dangerous challenge of burnout and compassion fatigue. The book also speaks to the disparities in our health care system with resources that help educate clinicians to recognize and treat these serious problems. Psychosocial Care of Cancer Survivors concentrates on the “soft skills” of humanistic communication, cultural humility, and self-care. It has taken time and consistency to move this message into the traditional medical setting, but progress has increased over time. In this case, a book that may be seen as a threat to an old and broken system might also be viewed as one that people prefer to skip over.

Surviving the Storm and Psychosocial Care of Cancer Survivors are both published by Oxford University Press and demanded quality information based on research that was accurate, vetted, and up to date. This type of writing required me to do a deep dive into valid and current research on treating the psychosocial issues of cancer. Sources needed to be quoted and credit given both within the document and in extensive footnotes, a detailed reference section, and an index that demanded page numbers and authorship of articles, studies, and books. All the material in the manuscript needed to be absolutely precise. Obtaining permission to use materials was an essential process that was not only time consuming but involved payment to the original authors. Writing for an academic press is rigorous work and, in the end, the writing of these two books, the second on a deadline, made me a better writer.

Odyssey of Ashes: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Letting Go (She Writes Press, 2021) is the story of the sudden death of my husband and was written during a time of deep grief. The catalyst for the book came when, five months after he died, my husband won a raffle prize of a guided fly-fishing trip to the Madison River in Montana. He had entered this raffle for nearly a decade, buying a $50 ticket each year, hoping to fulfill a wish on his bucket list. In a kind and generous gesture, the prize was offered to me to go in his place. This seemed at once a moment of magnificent synchronicity and a cruel joke of fate. And so, I traveled alone to the Madison River, taking his ashes with the intention of scattering them by this renowned mecca of fly-fishing, fulfilling a promise made to leave his ashes by a trout stream. 

Writing the memoir was a raw, emotionally cathartic, and exhausting process. It was different from the two academic books in that the structure came from my own lived experience and not a study or research project from another source. The source of Odyssey of Ashes was a broken heart and my own journey through a jagged, traumatic experience back into a life that was forever changed. In the memoir I was free to write without the scrutiny of “quote your sources” hanging over me. By contrast, the books on cancer had a clear, prescribed direction that was outlined and closely followed, along with a considerable amount of research on the topics I was presenting. In essence, I knew where I was going. The same was not true for Odyssey of Ashes. I rode on strong waves of feeling and memory, often being cast on unanticipated shores that could unexpectedly take me into deep, sometimes dark, places. I often felt lost within myself as well as on the page.

I have a background in poetry, so all my writing has a poetic tone. The memoir has a mythopoetic quality and, again, I was free to let this part of myself run wild, which in many ways paralleled the unfolding expression of my grief. Allowing this wildness to be a core element of the writing process of the book contributed to my own healing and, I believe, brought a raw intensity to the memoir. I am fortunate to work with a fantastic editor who has been with me on all three of these projects. During the writing of the academic books, it became a standard line for her to say, “The writing is lovely and poetic, but I have no idea what you are talking about!” I’d return to the diligent structure of academic writing and try to make sense without killing the “lilting” phrases I’d crafted. In writing Odyssey of Ashes, I was allowed to sink deeply into the poetic nature of transformation, and my editor no longer needed to ask me what I was really trying to convey. The memoir gave me a chance to show my dark sense of humor.   

Because of my Buddhist meditation practice, all three books have a spiritual perspective. In the academic books this is presented pragmatically and relates to psychotherapy, healing tools, and trauma work. In Odyssey of Ashes, I allowed myself to write from the depths of my inner world, bringing a personal, vulnerable piece out into the open for all to discover. There’s no hiding behind facts and figures in my memoir.

I write books that I would rather not have written …

I write about cancer because of my own experience. I write about my concerns for the clinicians in a broken healthcare system that is increasingly failing both patient and provider because I work in that system. And finally, I wrote about the sudden death of my spouse, my friend, my love. I felt called to write all three of these very different books and in my usual reluctant way … I answered that call. My books become my companions while I am writing them, and it’s always poignant when they fly out of my life into the hands of readers. Regardless of the differences between the academic books and the memoir, my intention as a writer is always for my books to offer the reader hope, inspiration, and an opening into the possibility of transformation.

CHERYL KRAUTER is a San Francisco bay area psychotherapist with more than forty years of experience in the field of depth psychology and human consciousness. A cancer survivor, she is the author of Surviving the Storm: A Workbook for Telling Your Cancer Story (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Psychosocial Care of Cancer Survivors: A Clinician’s Guide and Workbook for Providing Wholehearted Care (Oxford University Press, 2018). She lives with her personal assistant, a cat named Amie. Find her online at cherylkrauter.com

Odyssey of Ashes: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Letting Go begins with the sudden death of Cheryl Krauter’s spouse. Five months later, in a stroke of irony and magic, her husband wins a long-desired guided fly fishing trip in a raffle—and Cheryl decides to go in his place, fulfilling a promise to scatter his ashes by a trout stream. 

Part I of this memoir is an account of the first year after Cheryl’s husband’s death, where she becomes an explorer in the infinite stream of grief and loss, a time traveler between the darkness of sorrow and the light of daily life. Part II concludes with stories of the poignant and humorous adventures she had during the ensuing year. Tying it all together and woven throughout is Cheryl’s account of the creation of an altar assembled during the three-day ritual of Los Días de los Muertos. 

Poetic and mythological, Odyssey of Ashes is a raw story of loss and the deep transformation that traveling through darkness and returning to light can bring.

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