Q. In one sentence who is Lisa Cooper Ellison?
A. I’m a person who believes in the power of stories and the importance of helping others.
Q. Your bio says you come from a family where everything is communicated through a narrative arc. Talk about what that has meant to you as you make career choices.
A. I come from a family with a strong oral story telling tradition. We spent a lot of time telling tales during Sunday dinners at my grandmother’s house. I was particularly fascinated by her ability to bring stories to life through voices, pauses, and unusual vivid descriptions.
I don’t know when I fell in love with writing, but I have many memories of sitting on my bed as a teenager composing poems or short stories. I studied creative writing while getting my bachelor’s in English, but chose to pursue jobs in the helping professions because it seemed more secure. I continued to write and read in my spare time. When I contracted Lyme disease and had to slow down, I reflected on how quickly life changes and the importance of following your passions. Deep down, I knew that writing would heal me. And, it did.
Q. I was drawn to your work by the article you wrote about your brother. It was moving, painful, and real. Talk about where you had to go inside yourself to write that article.
A. I felt led to write the article “My brother had mental health issues and committed an awful crime. But I love him,” for The Guardian, because the number of families experiencing similar losses was increasing. I wanted to join the conversation regarding mental health crises in order to help those who grieve difficult losses and to challenge some of the misguided viewpoints regarding the complexities of addressing mental health problems.
Writing the article required me to tap into the intense grief I felt regarding my brother’s death, courage to speak publicly about such a personal event, and compassion for my brother, his victim, my family, and everyone this incident touched.
Q. Your writing and blogs convey a desire to provide hope and help. Talk about why this is important to you as a writer and as one who has had to cope with illness and loss.
A. Throughout my life I’ve experienced some significant struggles, including leaving home at age 17, my brother’s suicide, and contracting chronic Lyme disease. Many people provided assistance and hope at crucial moments. Now, I try to pay forward the gifts I’ve been given. Writing is an effective tool for transmitting hope.
Q. I am intrigued by your description of the book-length memoir you are working on. Tell briefly the premise of the book and why you were inspired to write it.
A. I contracted a debilitating case of Lyme disease, which was complicated by an MTHFR gene mutation, at age 38, the same age my mother was when she became disabled by a fall at work. She struggles with a variety of complex health conditions including lupus, gastro paresis, and rheumatoid arthritis. Her mother retired at 58 and also struggled with unexplained symptoms and diseases, as did her mother before her. After leaving home I was compulsive about my health and determined not to get sick like them. But then I did. When I found out that part of the problem was in my DNA, I knew it was time to write a book.
This memoir takes place in Elmira, New York, a town devastated by massive flooding during Hurricane Agnes in 1972. The place never recovered, which makes it an apt setting for a memoir about seeking higher ground. On a microcosmic level, the story is a coming-of-age tale about my life in two households—one with my grandmother who never let me leave the house and one with my mother who had a more free-range approach. On a macrocosmic level, it’s a story about the jobs and opportunities that receded with the floodwaters, leaving behind a murky world where unemployed fathers looked to the local prison for opportunity, mothers joined the workforce, and everyone had their desperate and beautiful ways trying to find hope.
Q. What is mindfulness-based writing, a writing discipline you teach?
A. Mindfulness-based writing is a practice that helps writers silence their internal editors, generate more work, and tap into their authenticity. It combines mindfulness meditation, free association writing, and the sharing of unedited work, which often contains kernels of the writer’s deepest truths.
Q. Other than financial, in what ways is being an editor rewarding and satisfying.
A. There’s something magical about helping writers find their voices and develop their ideas into something that adds to the larger conversation about our world.
Q. You are in remission from a mini-bomb of illnesses that led you to create the Body Inflamed website. What has this meant to your healing, and what reactions have you had from readers?
A. During the throws of my illness misery, I made a promise to myself that I would help others if I got well. Body Inflamed is my way of fulfilling that promise. I’m amazed by the courage I’ve seen from writers who contribute to the Messages of Hope section, and the words of encouragement and gratitude I’ve received from those who also struggle with chronic illness. People struggling with chronic illnesses have incredible perseverance, though they are often underestimated. It’s part of why I want to celebrate their voices.
Q. In what ways has writing changed who you are, or has it?
A. Writing helps me make sense of the world and myself. If anything, writing allows me to be my authentic self.
Q. As a freelance writer, what is the best advice you can give other writers about getting published?
A. • Read and write a lot
• Understand your intentions for writing a story or article. Once they’re submitted, they belong to the world.
• Treat your subjects with love and kindness
• Expect to get rejected A LOT
• Don’t take rejections personally—they may not be a reflection of your work
• Stay humble and be willing to revise one more time
• Always meet your deadlines
• Treat editors with the utmost respect.
Q. What are you currently working on and how can readers reach you online?
A. I’m working on second draft revisions for my book and a few short essays. I also provide editorial feedback on essays, short stories, and book-length projects and co-facilitate a mindful writing group.