Interview With Tracy A. Todd and Sean J. Mahoney

WG: Tracy and Sean, the two of you recently edited a collection called Something on our Minds, which is subtitled An Anthology to Benefit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Can you talk a bit about the genesis of that book?

TT: I am very active in my local MS community and serve as an MS Ambassador of the Northern California Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. I enjoyed my role as a Self-Help Group leader, but after three years of this fulfilling volunteer work, I stepped down to pursue a dream and actually penned my memoir. In doing so, I recognized writing as a therapeutic means of expression and decided that one day I'd like to facilitate a MS writing group.

While brainstorming about – MS Awareness Week – Walk MS 2012 – fundraising ideas and my desire to begin a writer's SHG…it hit me! I imagined the possibilities of an online Writer/Poet Self-Help Group, on MS Connection, NMSS Chapter Sites, Facebook, etc. Members of the group, i.e. people with MS, Caregivers, etc. could collaborate and write poetry and or short stories. We could publish the collection in a Kindle format on Amazon, and an inexpensive paperback using CreateSpace, with all the proceeds going to the MS Society.

Fundraising is challenging, but I felt such a project could reach a global market, while providing financial value to the MS society, emotional value to the writers and consumer value to the readers. The general population of "I donated!" check writers would be eager to purchase the anthology because not only would they be contributing to a worthy cause, they'd also receive something tangible for their donation. And it was through that brainstorming session that We Write for the Fight was born!

WG: How did you go about soliciting material for the anthology? What were your criteria for acceptance?

TT: When I first considered compiling an anthology, I knew there were people who would be interested in submitting, but I had no idea just how many budding poets and writers we had on our MS Connection social networking site. I created a Self-Help Group entitled "We Write for the Fight" and informed the MS Connection community that we would donate our words to this book, and in turn our royalties to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. People were thrilled as many had already found the benefit of journaling, blogging, or penning poetry to help with their day to day MS challenges.

Those who had yet to write for writing's sake, found motivation to put pen to paper because the process and the end product was for a worthy cause. The fact that their writing did not have to fit into a nice neat commercial box increased their willingness and many shared their words with others for the very first time.

Many people with MS can lead secluded lives and far too often they don't have an opportunity to share their feelings with an understanding audience. There is something to be said about the comfort of working amongst your peers, and for that reason we did not exclude any material that we received. Yes it was necessary to touch base with a few authors and ask that they revise a piece or clarify some of their prose, but no matter their level of writing proficiency all contributors and their generous donation of heartfelt words were accepted.

SM: There were no strident criteria and the process was wholly inclusive. With the exception of shortening of few of the longer essays we took everything we could. We had a group of almost 60 members at the MS Connection site and only half submitted for Volume 1. And honestly, part of that may have been due to a "are you really gonna release a book" wait-and-see approach from many folks – and we can't really fault them for that. Thousands of great and inspired ideas never get past just being ideas. As this WWFTF movement grows both in number and viability it is possible we may have to shift into a biannual release schedule. We'll see.

WG: Tracy, can you talk a bit more about, "We Write for The Fight." You call if a self-help group and allude to its therapeutic goal. How did it function? Can you give any concrete examples of successes that you saw?

TT: Great question. "We Write for the Fight" is an online self-help group and members receive therapeutic value at various levels. Inherent in our project is the fact that we, in our own big or small way, can make a difference in our lives and in the lives of others.

No matter our personal walk, we all have words within, and often 'It's in the gettin' 'em out' that true insight and personal enlightenment occurs.

Many members don't fancy themselves writers, but given the opportunity to share within a safe environment, several have shared experiences and expressions beyond their original expectations. "Wow, I just wanted to help with fundraising and never realized how angry I was until I sat down to write something for the anthology. What started as a story about my first exacerbation, unexpectedly took me through the stages of grief." For many this project was the first time they'd written about their MS experiences, and I've heard, "Wow I never thought writing could help me, but since this project, I've added daily journaling to my evening routine." Others are taking things to the next level. "I have notebooks full of poetry but hadn't shared it with anyone until I learned about the anthology. I received so many compliments about my work that I've decided to publish my own book of poetry."

We Write for the Fight is a therapeutic group project that takes regular every day MS fighters and transforms them into connected published authors, MS advocates and fundraisers. Surely these new titles, accomplishments and connections serve to lift, motivate, inspire and remind us that no matter our MS diagnosis, we can continue to be productive contributing members of society.

WG: Even though you saw "We Write for the Fight" as more of a therapeutic group than a literary one, I'm sure that there must have been some real surprises for you – work that ultimately made it into the anthology. As editors, will you each talk a bit about some of the specific pieces that you were pleased to be able to include in the anthology, and why.

SM: The pieces by 'Pop' pleased me to no end as he was super reluctant about participating in the first place. He felt himself too raw and coarse. I didn't have to drink him under the table or commit to war games to finally get him on board but it did take some coaxing. It was worth the extra effort - I could feel his rage even while rolling with laughter. I was moved by Bonnie Lavender's "A Sobering Truth about MS" for its empathetic sadness. I recall it lingering days after reading it the first time.

I can't single out any one particular poem but I remember there being little flecks of gold in each: "Suddenly I'm tossed again into the raging sea. And as I hang on to what's within, who's holding on to me? in Theresa Marie Fristick's "Cluttered" "The doorways seem smaller, like when I pass by, I hit the walls with my knee or thigh. " from Kelly Kiser Zakerski's "The Unknown".

TT: Yes, there were real surprises, but they were more about the diversity in style and attitude than the exceptional command of the literary word by a few individuals. I was motivated by the selections that portrayed a graceful acceptance of life with Multiple Sclerosis, but had an equal appreciation of the prose that lamented over all that this disease has and continues to take from us. The vast styles and perspectives of all the submissions were more characteristic of the diversity that exists within the MS community. Our anthology emphasized inclusion, diversity, and each piece, whether a soft eloquent poetic expression, or loud livid tirade, added a rich and honest portrayal of life with Multiple Sclerosis.

This collection gives something that MS often takes… Something on Our Minds offers balance, and that is exactly what we need to continue our valiant fight against this chronic illness.

WG: With both of you so busy in with your work for MS, I really appreciate your time. Before ending our interview, I want to let readers who are interested in learning more about Something on Our Minds that there is a review of the anthology in this issue of Wordgathering, as well as one selection from the anthology - Laura Kolaczkowski's "Stretching Myself" in the essay section. Where can readers who might be interested in buying the anthology be purchase it?