Learning How to Write While Writing this Book
Shopping at Scarlet Sage with author Maya Dusenbery
I meet Maya Dusenbery at Café La Boheme, a place she remembers from her time in San Francisco—she lived in the Bay Area for a few years while she was a Mother Jones fellow. Our destination is Scarlet Sage, an herb shop around the corner, but we decide to meet here first so we can chat. I’ve never met Maya before, but we’ve talked on the phone; I’m one of the many women she interviewed for her first book, Doing Harm, which calls out systemic sexism in medicine.
Maya tells me she discovered Scarlet Sage right before she left the Bay Area. “It was exactly five years ago that I was leaving, and I started getting rheumatoid arthritis symptoms ... I was like, well, I’ll just try some things, I’ll go get some acupuncture and all this alternative stuff. I’d just lived in San Francisco long enough to be a little bit more open to that.”
“MANGO SMOOTHIE!” shouts the barista over the roar of the smoothie machine.
“My diagnosis inspired the book in some ways,” she says. “I got a referral to a rheumatologist, but rheumatologists have such long waits.” This led her to take her treatment into her own hands: She saw a naturopath, tried an anti-inflammatory diet, and dove into medical research. “I’d just finished the fellowship at Mother Jones and the job is fact-checking mostly, so a lot of research,” she recalls. “It gave me some skills to help me feel confident reading medical journals.”
Doing Harm’s origins lie in an article Maya wrote in 2015 called “Is Medicine’s Gender Bias Killing Young Women?” After its publication, she was contacted by an editor who asked if she’d be interested in expanding that provocative and crucial question into a book. Her reaction was mixed: While she was thrilled, she was also uncertain. “I for sure don’t think that I would’ve chosen this as my first book topic—it’s a big one.”
Maya put out a call on Feministing.com (she’s an executive director of the website) for stories of sexist doctor experiences. She received nearly two-hundred responses. “Seeing all the stories in the Google doc and seeing how similar they were—that was the most powerful thing,” she says.
She describes the familiar double binds that trap female patients: “You’re either hysterical or you’re super stoic and nothing’s wrong or you’re this self-advocate and really push for the care you need but you don’t want to come across as this difficult, demanding patient.”
And self-advocacy isn’t an option for many people. “Only the most privileged people even have access to that stuff,” notes Maya. “The level of education you need to do your own research and read medical journal articles, and the surplus of time that you need to get a second, third, fourth, fifth opinion.”
Which makes me wonder, how does this discrimination relate to broader societal structures? Can any change be made without dismantling capitalist patriarchy?
Maya laughs. “I think it could be improved, at least,” she answers. “This book feels like it’s covering a lot of big and entrenched problems in medicine and then I remind myself like, oh yeah, it doesn’t even talk about how we have a for-profit healthcare system.” She shakes her head. Both of us are quiet for a moment—the problem feels insurmountable.
I ask her if she sees any potential for change.
“One thing I’m really hopeful about is making connections across diseases,” she says. “You have all these women who had similar experiences but who didn’t have a way of seeing them as a feminist issue, not as individual bad luck but as a pattern— so this movement to talking about them openly and seeing that women with a range of diseases have common experiences.”
As we walk around the corner to Scarlet Sage, Maya tells me about her current project: a piece that pushes back against the sexist media narrative that dismisses alternative health and wellness. “The tendency of medicine to dismiss women’s reports of their symptoms totally gets echoed in dismissing women’s reports of what’s helping them,” she says. “Women are like, I’m going gluten-free and it’s helping me, and doctors are like, that couldn’t possibly be the case, you’re wrong, you’re just wrong.”
Inside Scarlet Sage, peaceful flute music is playing. The women at the counter greet us. The first thing we see is a stack of copies of The Body Keeps the Score, which I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I haven’t read, as someone who thinks and writes about the mind-body connection and trauma. Maya has also been meaning to read it.
She picks up a basket and I follow her to the back of the store. She’s looking for something on the vast wall of supplements and vitamins. I’m not looking for anything in particular, just gazing at the rows of capsules and lozenges in their mysterious honey-tinted jars. I ask what she’s looking for and she answers, “Rhodiola.” I learn that Rhodiola is an adaptogenic that can help your body adapt to stress.
Stress was a significant part of Maya’s experience working on Doing Harm. She wrote the book over two years, but initially she was given a nine-month deadline, which added a lot of pressure. “I knew I was behind from the very beginning, so it was frustrating not to feel like I had the time and space to make mistakes,” she says. “I really felt like I needed to be efficient and productive at every moment, trying to figure out a process for doing something I’ve never done before. I really recognized, especially as I got deeper into the research, that there was a really important book here that was needed and that I could do an okay job writing, but I wish this was like my second book so I didn’t also have to be learning how to write a book while I’m writing this very important book.”
Maya is an accomplished writer—in addition to her role at Feministing she’s also been a columnist at Pacific Standard—but writing a book was different. “It was so painful,” she says. “Everyone always says that, writing a book is so hard, and I was like yeah, sure, but it’s just like a longer thing, you know? But there is something psychologically very different there.”
This resonates with me. I’m in the middle of writing a novel for the first time, so I’m experiencing all kinds of first-book confusion, disorientation, and am-Idoing-this-right anxiety. I tell her that my novel-in-progress feels like a big knot, that sometimes I have this uneasy feeling of not being able to see it from above. I ask Maya about the challenges she faced.
“The hardest part was not procrastinating, getting past writer’s block,” she says. “I would have such anxiety about [the manuscript] that if I looked at it I would basically shut down, so I had to get past that. Once I was in the zone, I could start, but it was so hard to start. If I didn’t start working at my coffee shop by 9:00 a.m., if it got to be 10:00, I was like, welp, try again tomorrow.”
I ask Maya what helped her get past her writer’s block. She tells me some of the things she tried, which include burning sage and microdosing LSD.
Did microdosing help? “It was one of the more helpful things I did, actually.” She describes the effects: “It’s super subtle but it sort of felt like a combination of coffee and what I imagine an antidepressant would be and Ritalin. The block for me was so much about starting and once I started there was momentum, so I think it just helped keep my mood elevated enough and focused enough to do that, to sort of turn the corner.”
We try on a lot of hand creams and salves and for the rest of the day my hands smell like figs and lemongrass and rose and basil. Maya names other things she tried, including float therapy, tarot cards, and Brain FM, music designed to get your brain into a flow state.
We move to the front of the store and browse the women’s health books. I flip through DIY Gynecology. “I think that my interest in this stuff comes from learning that history [the history of medicine being traditionally a women’s field] that I talk about in the book,” says Maya. “It was just powerful to be like, oh yeah, this profession took over from women who’d been doing this kind of work for so long. There was a concerted effort to take this knowledge and these skills away.”
I want to make sure I have a catalogue of all the things Maya tried. So: sage, microdosing, Brain FM, tarot, float therapy, and what else? Maya adds two more: astrology (“I started to dabble”) and cold showers (“somewhat effective but hard to keep up”).
It sounds like everything was somewhat effective, I say. Is that right?
Yes, with one exception. Maya recalls, “I did try macrodosing LSD as like a problem-solving dose. There were studies in the ‘70s giving engineers and architects a relatively small hallucinogenic dose of LSD and having them work on a problem, and amazing breakthroughs happened, and I was like, this is perfect—this is exactly what I need. I was very earnest about it and I had a friend who was going to be my guide and remind me to focus on my book once I was tripping and—I cannot imagine how anybody focused. I looked out the window for six hours. My friend was like, do you want to focus on your book, and I laughed in her face. That’s the last thing I want to do; there’s a beautiful winter day outside to look at.” She laughs. “That was the least effective thing.”
The cashier rings up the items in Maya’s basket: Tulsi tea, Mission fig hand cream, Rhodiola, and a bundle of sage. We walk out onto sunny, windy Valencia Street.
“You could do an article called ‘All the Things I Tried While Trying to Write My Book,’” Maya jokes. “There’s definitely an audience for that kind of shit.”—Amy Berkowitz