Brotherly Wisdom Part 5: Big Red Umbrella

It’s hard for me to imagine being as young and stupid as I was in college. But at least I had an older brother, Charlie, to help me with the profound as well as the mundane. I went to school in Olympia, Washington, a place well known for near constant drizzle. Before I began my freshman year, Charlie helped me buy a small umbrella. So when I opened his gift for my twentieth birthday, sophomore year, and saw he’d given me a huge red stadium umbrella, I was confused. I thought, doesn’t he remember I already have an umbrella? He was there when I bought it!


At the time, I didn’t understand that umbrellas are not usually possessions that last a lifetime. They wear out and break easily. Less than two years older than me, Charlie seemed to know this fact. I don’t remember what happened to either of my college umbrellas, but they’re long gone. Thank goodness for my smart big brother, who knew I’d need at least two to see me through my college years.


I found this quote in the first chapter of A Moveable Feast, by Earnest Hemingway. It’s Hemingway’s advice to himself. This is truly great writing and excellent guidance for any author.

Hemingway 1

‘ ” Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. ” ‘



For Unlce Jon, with much love.

My uncle Jon moved to Spain in 2016 and asked me to visit him there. At the top of the list of sights he planned to show me was the Alhambra in Grenada. It rarely rains there, but on the day of our visit to this historic fortress, it poured. We never considered canceling our plans. Nor did we complain about the rain. Jon held a huge umbrella over us, and we trekked through the ruins, the palace, and the gardens as if we were experiencing a lovely spring day. Even after I fell on a slippery step, we continued to enjoy our visit. We could have skipped the adventure or abbreviated it, only seeing the indoor portions of the Alhambra, but neither of us considered those options.e-grx1_motril_the-alhambra-palace_alhambra_2500x1250

Not everything in life goes as planned. We can either whine about things or carry on in the best way possible. Although I didn’t enjoy being soaked to the skin, the light had a magical quality that day, no doubt caused by the downpour.

When we live with illness, things go wrong all the time. We simply cannot be in the world and control all the circumstances with which we’re faced. Sometimes we have to make changes to our plans, and other times the best option is to carry on. I focus on being flexible and open. That’s how I was able to see the wonders of the Alhambra on a wet but enchanting day.


I try to be a nice person. I do. But sometimes I just can’t help being snarky. I attended a small dinner party in the early 2010s where I failed completely at civility. The other guests droned on and on about the wines they tasted, the travels they enjoyed, and the other parties they’d gone to. They seemed superficial and snobbish.

Novelist Norman Mailer
1987: Novelist Norman Mailer 1987 in New York.

Someone mentioned Norman Mailer. “He hasn’t published in several years,” one dinner guests observed. “Yes, because he’s dead,” I quipped. The other guest didn’t seem to hear me and commented again about the writer’s lack of new releases. “He hasn’t published because he died,” I replied. Maybe she had been off tasting wine in a foreign locale, I thought, and missed all the news about his passing as well as the annual memorials in the media. The woman looked taken aback. I knew I’d been rude, but I could no longer stand those people trying so hard to appear cultured yet being completely unaware that one of the greatest post-war writers of the twentiethcentury had died. 12467

What can I say? I’m not perfect, and it’s okay.


In 1984 when I was twenty-four, I attended a Smokey Robinson concert with my big brother Charles, his fiancée, and a few of his friends. One of the friends lit a cigarette during the concert, and I asked if I could bum one. (In 1984 people were allowed to smoke in concert halls.) In college I’d decided to allow myself one cigarette per calendar quarter, and I’d never gone over my limit.non-smoking-2383236_1280

Seeing me with the cigarette, Charles asked me to step into the aisle. He ordered me to move near the concert hall door and stopped me before we reached it. Standing in the theater’s aisle, he proceeded to read me the riot act. He cited the early deaths by cancer of two of our grandparents, both of whom smoked, and in extremely harsh terms urged me to never smoke again. I was completely taken aback by his aggressive brotherly love. Thinking about it now, I’m moved to tears. I’ve never taken a single puff on a cigarette since that night. I owe my total abstinence from cigarettes and the potential health hazards I avoided to my brother. For over three decades now, I’ve been grateful for his tough love that night.


This article was first published on the San Francisco Book Review on May 30, 2018.

Getting a first book published at age fifty-five could make a person so happy, she’d do her Snoopy dance all the time and in inappropriate places: on line in the grocery store, while cleaning the litter box, and even a few paces in front of her house of worship. I experienced this level of joy when my first book, Living Well with Chronic Illness (MSI Press, 2015) was published. After receiving good news about my book, I felt as though I’d taken the most fabulous happy pill. I was joyous the day my book was accepted for publication, thrilled beyond measure on its release date, and ecstatic when I discovered it was a number one hot new release in its small category on Amazon.girl-324688_1280

I also experienced many other unexpected, difficult emotions. For example, I upset my publisher by making a mistake and reacted so badly that I hibernated on my couch for three months. I wasn’t depressed. I know what that feels like. I simply didn’t want to feel anything, so I binge-watched the first ten seasons of Grey’s Anatomy every evening after work.

I began to understand why people who create for a living are prone to relationship instability, emotional liability, and addictions. Those issues seemed like perfectly reasonable responses to the vicissitudes of the creative process. The highs don’t negate or alleviate the lows, at least not for very long. I live alone and usually don’t speak to anyone I’m close to more than once a week. When my first book was published, many people supported me during my transformation to becoming an author, but no one served as a steady sounding board to help me through the low points or rejoice with me during the high ones. It was an acutely lonely process.


My pathway to becoming an author was speedy and uneventful. I found a publisher for my book three months after beginning the search. As a result, I didn’t know what other authors learn as they strive to become competent writers. Often they join writing groups and guilds, take classes and go to conferences where they meet other aspiring writers, and become knowledgeable about the business of publishing along the way. I didn’t do any of those things. I had no sense of what were reasonable expectations. Learning on the job was overwhelming and exhausting.

In addition to the steep learning curve and enervation, I’d decided to spend every dollar not locked down in retirement funds on book promotion. I had no disposable money, as a safety net, for the first time since I was twenty-eight years old. I chose to go for broke, and I didn’t expect to recoup my investment in sales. I simply wanted to give the book my best effort.

Nevertheless, I agonized over the money, fervently hoping that my car, my home, my cats, and I would not have any emergency that incurred a large, unexpected expense as I rebuilt my savings. When I told a colleague, he said he couldn’t believe I did this because it was so out of character. I agreed but explained that as a cinephile, I’d read about countless independent film directors who’d made the same decision. Most of their stories involved maxing out a series of credit cards. I’d learned over four decades from these artists that when you engage in a creative endeavor, you give it your all. But I worried constantly about money and spent many Sunday mornings crunching numbers to ensure that all my bills would be paid.calculator-385506__480

Then one Saturday, as I was leaving to get my hair and makeup done for a book signing at Barnes & Noble, a neighbor informed me that another neighbor, Greg, had been taken away in an ambulance that morning. Seven hours later, after returning from the book event, I ran into two different neighbors who told me Greg had died of a heart attack. I’d been friendly enough with Greg to invite him to my book launch. He attended yoga class several times a week and often rode his bicycle in the neighborhood. I never could have imagined him suddenly dropping dead.

This neighbor’s death convinced me I’d made the right choice to go for broke with my book, both financially and emotionally. I’m not worried about having a heart attack, but life can change swiftly without warning. No matter what happens next in my life, I’m pleased knowing I maximized my experience as a new author and gave my book the best start possible. In the process, I developed a deep appreciation for my publisher and became close to my editor and publicist. I learned about publishing, what I needed to do as a new author, and how to manage expectations. With hard work and my editor’s guidance, I became a competent writer.roller-coaster-2475115_1280

My second book will be published in April 2018. It’s my second baby. I’m calm this time around. I rely on the guidance of three skilled professionals during this process: my publisher, my editor, and my publicist. As the highs and lows begin again, I know I’m back on the roller coaster of book production. The first time, the roller coaster was too fast and too intense. This time I know what I’m doing. I’ll hang on, hair flying, eyes wide open, and a smile on my face. I’m practicing my happy dance again.


During the last five years, I’ve edited three books, had two books published, had thirty-eight essays published on a variety of websites, engaged in two publicity campaigns for my books, and maintained a weekly blog. I also engaged in a crash course on the publishing industry, about which I previously knew nothing. I’ve loved all the writing, and I’m deeply grateful to have published so much of my work, but I’m exhausted.pool-690034_1280

After the publicity activities for my second book subsided, I decided to give my literary life a rest except for my blog. The peace feels strange after so much constant activity, but I’m getting used to it. It’s okay to take a break if we’re tired.We don’t always have to be productive and moving forward. Treading water is sometimes the wisest course to ensure peace of mind and good health.




When I woke up on my fifty-third birthday, my life was fine. My health was stable. I had a job I liked. All was well with my family. But I had the mid-life blues, as though I’d entered a long, slow, slide to sixty, with nothing particularly invigorating in my future. I had written a manuscript about managing chronic illness at my father’s urging, but it sat in my desk drawer for almost eight years. I decided to combat my ennui by hauling my manuscript out of the drawer where it had lived for years and doing whatever I needed to get it publishedstickies-3127287_960_720

MSI Press published that book, Living Well with Chronic Illness, in 2015. My second book is being published this spring. I have published thirty-two short essays on the HuffPost Blog, as well as publishing on two other health and wellness websites. I’m amazed at my beginner’s luck. My writing life is more demanding and rewarding than I ever envisioned, and I’m deeply grateful. My stepmother, an award-winning science fiction writer, summed up my literary life perfectly by observing that I am having “the best mid-life crisis ever.” I’ve tried to be brave dealing with my health issues, and I’ve tried to be brave with my literary life. There’s no doubt that the challenges of the former helped me as I struggled to become a new author. It’s a grand adventure.

Great Review!

My new book, 100 Tips and Tools for Managing Chronic Illness (MSI Press, April, 2018), just received a great review from Library Journal. I’m thrilled. Take a look.

Charnas, Joanna J. 100 Tips and Tools for Managing Chronic Illness. MSI. Apr. 2018. 98p. ISBN 9781942891932. pap. $12.95. HEALTH/SELF-HELP
Unrelenting in her fight against chronic fatigue syndrome, Charnas (Living Well with Chronic Illness) offers an incisive supplement to her previous book with 100 tips composed of ten chapters, each containing a common theme of encouragement. The author’s advice focuses on those managing chronic illness; however, the timely affirmations serve a much wider audience seeking positive resolutions to daily life pressures. A recurring thread throughout emphasizes the importance of living in the moment and finding creative solutions in challenging circumstances (“When outside forces change, I have to change, too. Maximizing my health not only requires planning, but it also demands flexibility”). Verdict An excellent resource worthy of multiple reads. For those with a determined spirit during discouraging times.—Angela Dixon, Georgia State Univ. Lib., Clarkston