Juli K. Dixon, PhD, is a mathematics education professor at University of Central Florida who has published numerous textbooks–bestsellers in their field. After her daughter Alex experienced a sudden and debilitating illness and a stroke that may have saved her life, Juli turned to writing a memoir to document her family’s extraordinary experiences in saving Alex’s life and Alex’s remarkable road to recovering from her multiple challenges. A Stroke of Luck: A Girl’s Second Chance at Life is that memoir.
CS: What made you decide to write a memoir and share your story and Alex’s with others? Did the inspiration come at a particular moment or had you been thinking about writing a memoir throughout the ordeal?
Juli: I began sharing Alex’s ordeal through email in earnest following her stroke. I am not really a “social” person so I sent targeted emails rather than starting the type of social media site that is designed for people to be able to come visit.
The emails were therapeutic for me but what was more surprising is the impact they had on others.
Eventually, when I returned to the part of my work that involves public speaking, I would share Alex’s story in order to make the point that ALL children can learn. The response from the participants was striking. They urged me to write a memoir about Alex’s story.
I do a fair amount of academic writing in my profession so it seemed logical to follow their advice. Little did I know how much different writing a memoir is compared to writing articles and books about mathematics!
CS: Did you make a clear outline of the book before you began writing or did it begin to take shape as you wrote it?
Juli: I made a free flowing list of what I felt were important snapshots in time from Alex’s journey. I rewrote the list in chronological order then read the list over and over again filling in gaps. Finally, I added details under the snapshots to help me to paint the picture in my mind of each “episode” based on why I had felt it was important enough to belong on the list. Upon reflection, that list became my outline. I wrote from that list often naming the sections of the book with the original wording I used when I first started.
CS: A Stroke of Luck deals with difficult and personal subject matter that you and your whole family experienced. Did this affect your memoir writing process, knowing that an unknown audience would be reading of these matters? Did you have ways of reaching out for support during the memoir writing process or was the writing a kind of support as well?
Juli: It was not difficult for me to write about our experiences. I expected for it to be difficult but it really just flowed out of me, almost feeling like a relief to release it. However, it was difficult for me to write with emotion. I could tell about a scene but was challenged to place the reader in the scene. I wrote the book with my then 11-year-old daughter, Jessica. She is an excellent writer. She kept telling me that I had to write with more expression. I kept reminding her that I had a Ph.D. and she was in sixth grade – our editor agreed with her – Jessica will never let me live that down. I had to rewrite about 80% of my contribution and Jessica had almost no changes.
CS: A Stroke of Luck is highly focused on your family’s personal experience discovering and dealing with this rare medical issue, but you still discuss quite a bit of the whole medical system, of different diagnoses, tests, treatments, etc. Did you have to do any kind of outside research to complete this book? If so, what was your experience incorporating this research with your personal story?
Juli: Honestly, the only research I had to do was with the spellings of the terms I used. Since this was a life-threatening journey from the start, my husband and I had been researching everything in real time. I had the notebooks I had kept from the journey to refer to as I wrote but I did not feel the need to go much beyond that.
CS: A Stroke of Luck has a few particular features, such as different peoples’ voices brought in and the different kinds of media used to tell the story, such as emails, journal entries, and letters. How did you decide to use these features to tell the story? What kind of effect do you think they have on the reader?
Juli: Part of what I do as a mathematics education professor is research. An important aspect of the research I do is to demonstrate the trustworthiness of the data with evidence from multiple sources. It might be because of this that I felt it imperative to tell Alex’s story through multiple lenses. My emails provided the evidence of my reactions in the moment; my sister-in-law’s emails provided evidence that there were times I could not communicate. Jessica’s chapters provided a crucial view into the impact Alex’s journey had on those around her. Alex’s journal entries provided a window into her thoughts and emotions that would have been lost otherwise. Reading through Alex’s diary, journal, and emails was the most difficult part of this data collection process. I hope that their combined effect on the reader is threefold: to provide a level of authenticity of the work, to allow them access to multiple perspectives, and to offer a break in what can be a fairly emotional read.
CS: I also noticed that although A Stroke of Luck deals with such serious and poignant subject matters and events, there are moments of humor and levity in the voice, such as when Marc is unable to help clean when Alex has C. diff or when Alex cannot stop saying “oink, oink.” These moments make the voice seem so natural and help the reader feel close to the narrator’s experience. How did you determine what voice or narrative style to use in A Stroke of Luck? Did you experiment with certain styles or voices before deciding? How do you think a memoir writer can know the right voice to use for their book and target audience?
Juli: My first attempt at A Stroke of Luck was written completely in past tense with almost an arm’s-length distance from the events as they happened punctuated by Jessica’s contributions that were at once humorous and heartbreaking. I was given very helpful advice to “place the reader in the scene.” That advice helped me to pull the humor in – several of the scenes truly were funny. Finally, on one of many, many reads of my own work I realized why including dialogue was so difficult. I realized that the entire manuscript was written in past tense. I changed the tense to present tense in every place I felt it was possible to do so and I feel that this change helped me to pull the reader into the story.
CS: In addition to the voice of the narrator, other voices are introduced into the narrative through diary entries, letters, etc, such as Alex’s, Jessica’s, or Sherri’s. Can you tell us about what your process was like assimilating all of these voices into one coherent narrative? How did you decide when to shift to a different person’s voice or interject a different kind of media? What effect do you think including all these voices and point-of-views has on the reader?
Juli: I realized that what I was writing was going to be a difficult read. I tried to include other voices to break up the journey so that the reader could pause and breath. I also pulled in other voices when I felt that the reader needed the closest I could provide of “proof” that the unbelievable journey I was sharing must be believed.
CS: The book was co-written with your daughter Jessica, who was quite young at the time of Alex’s medical issues. What was the writing process like working with another writer? Did you have any difficulties during it? Did you two have similar ideas of concepts of what the final book would be like? What was it like combining your narrative with Jessica’s, whose narrative comes from a much different point of view and impression than yours, as you were directly observing the events?
Juli: It was challenging but crucially important to the story and to our family. At the time, and probably to this day, Jessica was feeling invisible. I needed to find some way for her to communicate this to others. My husband, Marc, and I had made difficult decisions to keep her out of the drama throughout our journey not realizing that this decision in itself caused a drama of its own. I wanted Jessica to share that and to be included. She is such a good thinker and writer; I knew she could do this. At first she was excited to participate but over time as she reread her entries she became concerned that she was coming across unkind and selfish. I think that was most difficult for her. She was maturing and healing as she wrote. That was what was most difficult for her. What was most difficult for me was allowing her to write on her timeline not mine. She liked to write when she had breaks from school. That often meant waiting a month to get an entry from her. That was challenging, as I did not always know what she would write so I needed to rework what I had written to support the flow of the story. As far as writing styles, that was probably more difficult for Jessica than for me. She was frustrated with the lack of emotion in how I wrote. She feels better now that I received help to correct that somewhat. Also now that she is 13, she wishes she could rewrite her parts of the book because she feels she is a better writer now. I remind her that when she wrote it then, she was not 13.
CS: Did you reach out for input from others during the writing of A Stroke of Luck? Did you get a wide array of input, such as from friends and family, from other writers, from writing coaches, etc or was it mostly from one group? At what times did you ask for this input?
Juli: I did not get input from beyond my family at first. After I completed my first draft I asked some friends to read the manuscript but they all knew the story already. Marc and my mother contacted some people who did not know the story. Everyone said it was very good but I was not convinced. I knew that it needed revision but I had no idea how to go about it or what to do once it was “ready.” I did not know how or who to ask for this sort of feedback. Eventually I went searching for help on the web. This was at a point when I was close to giving up on the process. I found a site where I could submit questions to a writing coach. I found Book Writing Coach Lisa Tener. I sent her a question and she responded almost immediately. That was a turning point for me. I had professional guidance. Lisa read the manuscript and gave me extremely helpful feedback. At that point the story was buried in too much medical detail. She suggested I contact Stuart Horwitz for more support and I did. I worked through several revisions with the support of Lisa and Stuart. It sometimes took months for me to make the suggested revisions but I persevered. They were both kind and firm in their manner of support – just what I needed. I’m sure I would not have made it to publication without them.
CS: You mention a few times that the process of writing this book was painful for some people as it re-opened emotional wounds from a difficult time. What made you decide to keep writing it and see it through to the end? What do your family and friends think about you writing A Stroke of Luck now that it is finished, particularly those who were directly involved in Alex’s diagnoses and treatments?
Juli: I am disciplined almost to a fault to finish what I start. This process took more time than I had to give and those close to me were concerned that the choice to keep writing was a dangerous one. However, they knew better than to push me to stop, they mostly just offered their opinion as a warning to take care of myself. While I knew it would be difficult for others, especially my husband, I felt that it was important – being difficult has rarely, if ever, been a strong deterrent for me. I also learned early on that memoirs, especially medical memoirs, are difficult to “sell.” That concerned me but now I take it as a challenge. This story needs to get out there. I will do everything in my power to help that to occur. However, I do not want to hurt people in the process. I changed names and “zoomed out” on locations to protect people’s privacy while maintaining the authenticity of the story. I sent those who could be most impacted the manuscript to read before I published it letting them know of my intentions so they could weigh in. They were all very supportive.
Juli: I thought that it would be very easy to get a publisher. I am already a well-published textbook author with a major publisher. I thought, surely, they would want to or at least agree to publish A Stroke of Luck. I had a difficult awakening to the fact that this would not be the case. At that point I made a decision to self publish. The publisher did not even offer to read the manuscript. They said “no” based on the fact that I was seeking to publish a medical memoir. I felt that if I could not convince them then I could not convince any publisher. I am now on a mission to be so successful that publishers seek me out to publish A Stroke of Luck. That means that I needed to make sure that the book was published in a professional manner. I hired consultants to help with the process. It was an expensive investment but I am happy for every decision I’ve made thus far. I think the book looks professional, reads well, is error free, and has a presence in social media.
CS: What do you think worked well with this method of publishing as opposed to other methods? What do you think didn’t work as well?
Juli: I had control of something that was very personal to me. I know that you lose control in the publishing process otherwise. Control is important to me, as I am so much a part of this story. What were difficult were the expense and the number of decisions I had to make. I don’t think I would have made it without consultants I trusted completely (thank you Lisa Tener, Stuart Horwitz, and Chloe Marsala).
CS: There are a lot of choices writers must make about who to work with on their book, such as publishers, agents, editors, etc. Did you find that having a more personal book affected your decisions on who to work with? If so, how? Did you find it difficult to share your manuscript with these more objective and neutral readers?
Juli: I am accustomed to the review process as an academic who publishes reviewed work frequently. However, I must say that I was surprised at how much more difficult it is to receive feedback on this personal work. I am nervous when people I know read it as well as when people I don’t know read it. I find myself craving the feedback while worrying about what I will read or hear. I have to discipline myself not to check to see if I have more reviews on Amazon on a minute-by-minute basis.
CS: What advice do you have for writers on choosing who they work with, particularly if they are writing something based on personal or difficult subject matters and experiences?
Juli: Choose people you respect but also people who will be, and you can tolerate them to be, your critical friend. This helps in choosing people you know. Social media is very helpful in choosing people you don’t. Read what and how those individuals choose to communicate about themselves. Go with your gut feeling. Then, ultimately, make sure you have chocolate available when you are provided the feedback.
CS: Did you encounter any roadblocks during the writing and publishing processes? How did you overcome these? What advice do you have for readers encountering similar roadblocks?
Juli: One of my biggest roadblocks was time. I just don’t have enough of it. There was a few months that I decided that my goal was to write or revise one page of manuscript per day. Once that was accomplished I turned away from my work so that other areas of my life would not suffer and I could still feel good about my accomplishment.
CS: How can our readers reach you and buy the book?
Juli: My best point of contact is through my website A Stroke of Luck.
Juli K. Dixon, Ph.D. is a professor of mathematics education at the University of Central Florida. A prolific writer and speaker, she has published numerous textbooks and delivered keynote presentations throughout the United States. She lives in Central Florida with her husband Marc and their two daughters. Her younger daughter and co-author Jessica Dixon began writing this book when she was eleven years old and completed her last chapter when she was thirteen.