So, about that book I'm writing...
This one time, in Norway...
Last year, I declared on Facebook that I was writing a memoir about my two hikes across the Trans-Catalina Trail. My first book. I was getting ready for a three-week cruise in/around Norway with my father, and anticipated finding a cozy section of the ship to call home. I had visions of this book just pouring out of me, effortlessly, and returning home to the US with a completed manuscript. I had just gotten off the Trans-Catalina Trail not even a month prior, I had just been interviewed for a feature in the REI Co-Op Journal about my life adventuring with diabetes, and REI had offered me the opportunity to share my story in three stores in SoCal to test this speaking tour idea.
I was high on life, and this book was my ticket to the next chapter of it.
I sat in my big yellow chair in my home office with my journal, setting some intentions and unpacking some of the conversations that happened between when we got off the trail and getting ready to leave for this trip.
My father had sent me a text a few days before I was scheduled to fly to Orlando asking if I was "stable enough" to be away from Barry for three weeks.
I wanted to cancel my trip, but I went anyway. I responded that I was the happiest and healthiest I'd ever been, and that I was definitely okay to be away from Barry, and that the second he saw me coming down the escalator at MCO, he'd know I was okay.
I journaled about the comment, what it meant, how it made me feel. I vowed that writing this book would be one of the most challenging projects of my life, but that it was the ultimate gift to myself. To face the realities of what brought me to the island in the first place, the growth I had experienced as a result of that first hike, everything that led to my Diabetes diagnosis, and ultimately, uncovering that at the root of all of this was the rape I survived. I knew this was going to be hard. But I was excited for this uninterrupted opportunity in what was previously one of my happiest places: a cozy corner of a cruise ship, surrounded by nothing but ocean for days on end between ports.
On the plane ride from San Diego to Orlando, I wrote more than 20 pages about the rape. It was my first time writing it out. My first time facing my demons in my most sacred outlet - writing. Other than sharing the story with Barry the year before, I hadn't really told anyone the details. It was hard to trust my memory. As I recalled moments of the most violent event I've ever experienced, I heard my dad's voice:
“Are you sure you're stable enough?"
I wrote and cried and acknowledged my pain. I forgave myself for not allowing anyone in sooner. I gave myself permission to grieve whatever I needed to grieve. I congratulated myself on sharing this story with Barry. I wrote furiously, snot dripping from my nose as I sat in my aisle seat, trying to find the words to convey what my rapist took from me. I connected the dots, continuing the work I had done to unpack this on the island, finally understanding how this trauma had manifested in my physical body, in my mind, and in my relationships with other people.
When I saved the document, I wiped the tears from my eyes. Similar to the feeling I found as I was unpacking my #traumapack across Catalina Island on that second hike, I felt lighter. A weight had been lifted. I had been free from my numbing coping mechanisms for almost a year, thanks to Diabetes, and I finally had the clarity I needed to be able to face this story, to write it out. For the first time in more than 10 years, I felt more at home with myself, with what I had survived, and where I wanted to go.
When I arrived at the Orlando airport, I jumped straight into performing the role of the daughter who is stable enough. I got in the car with my parents and was a motormouth of word vomit, sharing the story of how the opportunity with REI had presented itself, my visions for the tour, the book, and an eventual documentary.
I didn't give myself a chance to just show up as Sydney Williams, the woman I have grown to be. I was Sydney Owen in that back seat. Desperate to show that I wasn't on the verge of a breakdown, as my dad had insinuated with his message to me. Desperate to show that I had it all together. That I was in control.
I had made the mistake of crying on a video chat on Father's day in the weeks that lead up to my arrival, and I was NOT going to make that mistake again. My visible emotions were what triggered the comment from my father about my mental well-being. This wasn't a father concerned for his daughter, this was something else.
Everything was fabulous - I had an incredible visit with my sister and her husband and felt like I had truly healed some wounds from my time in Florida - after the assault and before I moved to Chicago.
It was fabulous until we got off the plane in London.
Things got wild before this hike in Tromso, which happened a year ago today:
This outfit was my coat of armor during what was one of the most difficult passages of my life. My Pepper tee stokes joy and lifts my energy levels when folks ask about it. My #sparklepants help me find my sparkle when I can't find a shred of sunshine on the dark days. The boots speak for themselves.
Before this hike, I told my father about my assault for the first time since it happened more than 12 years ago, and everything that brought me to that ship and all the changes I was making in my life. I didn't like the way I showed up in certain situations. I was actively doing the work to become a better human. More compassionate. More grounded. A kinder person. His response?
He said that my story was bullshit and that I better come up with a new one before I got home, because nobody would buy the one I just told him.
He didn't stop there.
He suggested that this chapter of my life was a mistake and that I should run back to the agency and beg for my job back at half the salary I was earning before I left to save my own life.
I sat in front of him, shocked at the words that came out of his mouth. Here I was, the happiest, healthiest, and most inspired I've ever been, and he told me I was a liar. That I was a disappointment.
He doubled down and said I never needed his approval, that I have it, by default.
The cognitive dissonance was suffocating. Who was this man and what did he do with my father? Was he right? Am I a fuckup?
On this hike, I learned a very important lesson: it is okay for everything to be amazing AND ALSO have a part of you that needs healing. You don't have to wait for everything to be perfect to find joy. In fact, stop robbing yourself of life's pleasures because there's this ONE THING that doesn't fit in the happy column.
I could have been in a sour mood here. I could have wallowed in his words. But I didn't. I rocked the shit out of this hike and had the best time of my life on this fjord. I made new friends and ended up having the trip of a lifetime.
We contain multitudes. Joy is fleeting. So is pain. Ride the wave, and as the Kona boys say, there's nothing like a brand new day.
Listen to Brand New Day here.
I got home from that trip, stunned. More exhausted than I was before I left because of the mental gymnastics required from me to hold myself back from expressing myself fully, and just survive the rest of the trip. Walking on eggshells, making sure I didn't say anything that would set my father off. As I was experiencing these different emotions and triggers, as I was writing about them, I realized that I had been using my father's reactions as my barometer of success for my whole life. And, I had been crafting communication strategies since I could remember.
No wonder communication is effortless for me. I may have earned my degree in Mass Communications 10 years ago, but I've been doing this for at least 25 years. Every day of my life.
Here I was, 33 years old, realizing that my father's reactions were never predictable, but I had spent a lifetime trying to wrap my head around how to communicate with him. When he flew off the handle and raised his voice, I made note of what I had asked for and how I worded it and vowed to never repeat that mistake. When I accidentally woke him from a nap (he worked nights), I made a note to tip-toe and stay still and be quiet as a mouse so I wouldn't be on the receiving end of his anger.
This realization shook me to my core and gave me so much context for the struggles I had experienced over the course of my life.
The most disturbing of which: when I was raped, I pretended I was asleep. When I was a kid, this was a suitable way to avoid getting yelled at. If I pretended I was napping, I could avoid getting in trouble. I had watched my mom read books while my dad raised his voice on the phone, to us. I didn't really witness any push back, and I don't have any memories of her standing up for herself, for us, or saying "hey, it's not appropriate" when he got triggered.
So in the most violent moment of my life, I pretended to be asleep.
I had to sit with that. Did it save my life? Probably. I don't know if my rapist knew I was faking being asleep, but I survived the experience, which was better than the alternative.
I pushed pause on writing the book. I had done a lot of work to get to this point, but the work had really just begun.
Sharing my story with you made this book easy to write.
Now, a year later, I'm sitting on my completed manuscript of the memoir. It's done. I wrote it. How did I get there? What changed?
You. You made this possible.
Without the opportunity to share my story, over and over again, I wouldn't have been able to write this the way I have written it. I looked back over the 70+ pages I wrote the first time I tried to write this book, and the writing is sloppy, at best. It's a recounting of facts. Copying/pasting relevant blog posts or Instagram captions, trying to piece a story together. It's lacking insight. There's no nuance. No scene-setting. It's a step above a bulleted list recounting the events that happened between my assault and today.
But this wasn't wasted energy. Not by a long shot. That first stab at the book was what informed the talk I give on tour. Once I got that out of my body, it served as an outline for the stories I share on the road.
When we first started doing rehearsals of this talk, it took 2-3 hours for me to get through one rendition of it. Barry was patient, recorded all of it, and helped me refine it. As we were trying to trim down the time to fit into the 45-60 minutes I have when I'm at REI, I was frustrated. It was very important to me that all of the details were included. If something happened on a Wednesday, I needed to articulate that it was Wednesday, because omitting the day felt like a lie.
I didn't realize how much unpacking I still had left to do.
We kept trimming. I kept resisting. Finally, Barry helped me determine what was "book stuff" and what was "speech stuff". Book stuff means that I save those stories for the book. Speech stuff means it stays in the speech. This felt like less of a personal attack on the details, and more like an intentional splitting of the stories. The stuff that requires more setup, more storytelling, more context - that's book stuff. The heavy-hitting details, the key points of both hikes and the experiences before, during, and after them - that's speech stuff.
Fast forward to this summer. On tour. Living in a van. Seeing the country. Sharing this story.
We had been staying with my mentor and his family during our Bay Area tour. We were planning on heading to the coast for my birthday but I felt the nudge to go back "home". After I blew out the candle on my birthday cupcake, and before we left their house to head up to Sacramento, I had asked my mentor what I needed to do to start to get this book done. The book itself felt like a mountain, and I needed baby steps. Give me a trail. Help me break this down.
"Put together your table of contents, an abstract about the book, your bio, and a couple of sample chapters." he said.
I finished that task the following day. We were sitting at Point Reyes National Seashore when I wrote the first two chapters of the book. I felt like I had just overcome a huge hurdle. And the feeling of accomplishment felt like a million bucks.
I turned that document over to some trusty friends - folks familiar with my story who also had an eye for editing and storytelling. The feedback I got had me so fired up. I was doing this! It resonated! My friends wanted more to read!
I was letting it sit, taking a break from the writing. I hadn't made much movement on the book thing until the end of June when we started booking dates for the east coast part of the tour. When I was confirming dates in Michigan, one of the stores asked where my book was sold, that they couldn't find it.
Uh, that's because it hasn't been written yet.
It was just the motivation I needed. I knew we had a week off between Ashland and Portland-area talks. We were house- and dog-sitting for my mentor again. Their home is spacious, well-appointed, and every time Barry and I have visited since we moved into the van full-time, I heal in major ways. This house is a peaceful, calm, soothing place. I am free to be Sydney, fully expressed here. I am celebrated for all I've achieved, the work I've done to become the best version of myself, and I feel nothing but love when I walk in their front door. I feel seen. Loved. Understood.
I knew this is where the rest of the book would be written.
When we rolled into their home to house-sit during the first week of July, I set my intentions.
How do I want to feel while I write this? When I am sitting across from Ellen or Kelly Clarkson on their talk shows, and they ask me about my process, what story do I want to tell?
I sat down and visualized what writing this book would feel like:
I will sit on this couch, with our reggae playlist on loud enough to set the vibe, but not loud enough to where the lyrics are distracting. I will open my computer, take a deep breath, and the words will flow effortlessly. I've lived this. I've processed it. And by now, I've shared this story on stage more than 20 times. I have the outline done. Now it's just time to really transport myself back to these events, to share the stories that don't fit in the speech, and to bring the readers with me across the island, into my journal entries, and wrap it all up with a pretty bow.
And you know what? That's exactly what happened. Over the course of the week, I wrote more than 60k words. I sat on that couch, and in that chair, and on that deck, and I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. Sometimes it made me cry. Sometimes I was doubled over with laughter. More than anything, it felt like I was channeling my highest self. The one who is confident. The one who isn't afraid to speak her truth. The one who knows that this book, that this trauma, wasn't for nothing. That someday, what I've lived through will be someone else's survival guide.
For the first time, maybe ever, I recognized the process for what it always has been, but I never realized: writing this book felt like a gift. It was meditation. A world I could dive into, free from judgment, and just show up, words on the page. It felt like the energy I intend to create on every tour stop, on every hike we host, in every conversation I have with you, digital, in-person, or otherwise.
So now what?
Now I'm navigating the publishing world. I'm exploring self-publishing options, but LORD they are expensive. I've gotten quotes for how much it costs to self-publish with a few different publishing companies, and it ranges from $3,000-$13,000. Traditional publishing requires a literary agent in most cases, and I'm so thankful for the folks who have offered up their experience in this industry to help me find my way.
I know it's not going to be ready for the Michigan stores who want to buy it, and I'm glad I'm not rushing through this process. The initial draft came easily, and now I'm recruiting some of my friends to help me get this edited, make sure the story flows well for the readers, and ensure that my life's work, that all of these experiences, are articulated in a way that can help YOU see your life through a new lens.
Would you be interested in reading a sample chapter from the book
Do you already know you want to read it?
Do you know anyone who is a literary agent, works in publishing, or could otherwise help me navigate this vast ocean of possibility and choices?
If the answer to any of the questions above is yes, leave a comment below and let me know. It would be great to hear from you.