I’ve known Teri Dillion for over a decade, having first met on a month-long meditation retreat in Colorado in 2008. Back then if you’d asked me about her, I would have spoken of her devotion to her practice and her penetrating blue eyes. Today, if you asked me about her, I would speak of courage, determination and fierce love. A few years ago Teri was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS. Since then she has been sharing about her journey, with all its ups and downs, on social media—and having read every one of her posts I can attest to how potent, vulnerable and real a writer she is. I’m thrilled to say that she’s now written No Pressure, No Diamonds—a memoir which we at kn literary were honored to edit. I interviewed her about choosing to tell her story, what it was like to self-publish, and how she wrote 80,000 words with her eyes. Her responses were characteristically eloquent, touching and true. I hope you enjoy our exchange as much as I did. ~Kelly
Introducing Teri Dillion
Kelly Notaras: You’re about to self-publish your first book. Congratulations! Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Teri Dillion: Thanks! Self-publishing is definitely an accomplishment.
When I was eight or nine, I attempted to write my first novel on scraps of green construction paper, via plagiarizing the plot of the first National Lampoon’s Vacation movie. For the fifteen minutes the project held my interest, I thought I was so clever! That venture didn’t go far, surprisingly, but my draw toward words persisted and thankfully got a little more refined over time.
Journalism and creative writing were a couple of the (five or so) majors I cycled through in college; I liked how words could be used to companion people into fresh perspectives, and evoke emotion. And I always felt most alive when writing, especially creatively. It was one of the few activities that would engross me thoroughly enough that I’d forget to eat or use the bathroom: a true sign of a strong calling.
But sometime in my twenties I became interested in paying bills, so I ultimately chose a more straightforward career path in psychotherapy. It was only recently, once I was prevented by circumstance from doing more “productive” work, that I was reunited with my love for the practice of writing; another unexpected gift of disablement.
About the Book
KN: Your book is a memoir called No Pressure, No Diamonds. Would you tell us a bit about the story you’re sharing in the book, and what made you decide to write about your experience?
TD: Yes. No Pressure, No Diamonds is a story chronicling my descent into paralyzing neurological illness in my thirties, and the emotional, relational, and psychospiritual fallout—and transformation—elicited along the way.
I started writing to share what I’d been through in my attempts to radically heal my body, which were colorful and eventually, comedic. Because allopathic medicine had nothing to offer me, I tried any and every DIY intervention that caught my attention, and slowly grew into a connoisseur and critic of alternative medicine and healing philosophy. But over time as my illness progressed, and especially once I surrendered to my approaching death, writing became my way to drill to the pith of what makes life worth living regardless of external circumstances. In that way my manuscript became a living contemplation on surrender, and grace.
And as someone who’s spent a lifetime studying psychological insight and seeking spiritual wisdom, I felt uniquely qualified to use my story to share with readers which tools and perspectives actually made a difference when dealing with such a difficult life detour. Though the process of writing was intensely challenging at times, it eventually became a vessel to help me reclaim and revision what gave my life meaning.
The “Writing” and Self-Publishing Experience
KN: You are the first kn literary client to have used eye-tracking technology to write your book, and we are all very impressed! Is this as big a feat as it sounds?
TD: It wasn’t easy, especially at first. It took months of training with my speech therapist and tons of trial and error on my own to become adept at word processing through my gaze. I liken it to writing an eighty-thousand-word manuscript on a glitchy smartphone as if your thumbs have had a margarita or two but your mind is sober; more than a tad tedious, and requires good humor. Thankfully my eye gaze keyboard has some auto-suggest words so I don’t always have to blink out every single letter. On many heavy writing days when the words are flowing for hours, my eyes will burn and ache hard by evening. But I can’t really complain; my existence would be much less fun without this incredible tool.
KN: You self-published No Pressure, No Diamonds after first considering looking for a traditional house. What were the considerations you made in your decision to self-publish, and what advice would you give another author contemplating the DIY path?
TD: I think self-publishing is a good way to go, especially for first time authors with strong motivation. Once I started learning about agents and proposals and queries and all the rest involved with traditional publishing, I got overwhelmed. As an impatient person with little time to lose, I just wanted to write the dang book and get it out on my own schedule. And I think for anyone determined to learn a new skillset, self-publishing can be rather fun and creative. You have a lot of influence over the outcome of your book, for better or worse.
One thing that I’ve learned is the importance of choosing competent, tactful, and communicative partners throughout the self-publishing journey. I’ve found this to be true for working with an editor, a proofreader, a marketer, beta readers, etc—everyone. These are the folks who will help bring your baby to life, and you don’t want to hand her over to someone who doesn’t get your vision, have good boundaries, or respect your time. So thorough vetting is in order, especially so you can first gauge your own emotional response to whoever you might work with. I made a big mistake of accepting free editing help from a guy who I believe fits the definition of “energy vampire,” and only realized I had disregarded my inner warning lights about him after he ripped apart my work line by line. After I set strong boundaries with him, he then moved into trying to rip me apart, using what I shared in my writing to try and gaslight me. It was an exhausting distraction, but another necessary lesson to learn about using strong discernment during the incubation process.
But honestly, I’m learning self-publishing is like getting a tattoo; by the time you’ve actually learned the ropes and been introduced to the culture by completing the project, you only want more. (Or so I’ve heard, I’ve never gotten a tattoo for that reason.) So I’m sure the lessons never cease.
Lastly, I’ll just say this: I’m so delighted I stuck it through to the end. There were so many moments of overwhelming doubt in the past two years when I wanted to give up on the whole thing. But now, having my earliest readers tell me the book helps them feel more sane and less alone, I know it was all worth it.
The Beautiful Cover
KN: We all LOVE your cover over here. How did you find your designer, and what was the process of choosing the design like? Did she do your interior design as well?
TD: Thanks, me too! I found my designer Christina Thiele through doing a 99designs contest, where designers around the world get to share their interpretations of your book vision for a few hundred dollars. I ended up getting over 90 entries to choose from.
One thing that was helpful about 99designs is they have a polling tool to share online so you can easily get feedback from others. I had 81 people weigh in on my best cover design possibilities, which was quite helpful, and helped drum up interest in my book by getting potential readers involved.
That said, I feel I got really lucky finding Christina, because most of the other contest designs were not of the quality to compete with traditionally published books. If I was to recommend something to first-time self-publishing authors, it’d be to shop for designers directly, and commission one whose work excites you. The extra cost would be negligible if it helps you sell more books. Reedsy.com is one platform to find one, but there are others; I believe 99designs has that option as well.
And yes, Christina worked on the typesetting and internal layout as well. I chose her because I trust her competence and vision, and enjoy her friendly willingness to persevere through my niggling design adjustment requests. What a gem.
Reaching the Finish Line
KN: I often hear from clients that completing their book was one of the most meaningful accomplishments of their lives. What has finishing this book made possible for you?
TD: What’s funny about this question is I’m in a unique position with self-publishing. Since I’m retired I really have nothing to sell; I’m not trying to build a career or brand for myself. I’ve been in hospice for 16 months already and never expected to survive this long. Until recently I didn’t know if I’d get to finish the book, so my husband had instructions on finishing it for me, similar to what Paul and Lucy Kalanithi did with When Breath Becomes Air. Sometimes I wonder if the day after my book is published, I will have completed my mission and finally feel free to croak. My own therapist keeps reminding me that I may have more projects in me, and maybe even another book(!). She’s smart about things, so I’m trying to listen.
As I neared publication, interesting offers began to trickle in. People began contacting me to collaborate on creative projects. My launch team of advanced readers write daily with ideas for how to expand my reach. I even had an ALS activist offer to read passages from my book to Congress during a hearing on treatment access for patients like me. So I’m trying to stay open; it seems like the universe may get to squeeze more out of me yet.
KN: Who is your ideal reader for the book, and what do you hope they will learn and/or experience from reading the book?
TD: I believe I cast a wide net with my story, since it captures the challenge of grappling with one’s own mortality, which is about as universal as it gets. But I believe it’ll especially resonate with anyone with chronic illness who’s frustrated with allopathic medicine and perplexed by the vagaries of alternative healing and “wellness” culture.
I also attempt to use my story to explore the complex reality of spiritual abuse; how grief can have wide-ranging manifestations; and how us humans are not always equipped for showing up for each other following misfortune. I’m hoping these themes will help readers feel less alone in their own emotional complexities, and more prepared to help hold others through their own life descents and difficult reckonings.
One theme I weave throughout the book is how seductive and destructive spiritual bypassing is. People with illness are often gaslit by New Age or prosperity gospel-type ideas into believing they caused their own suffering, and therefore shouldn’t feel bad about it. This puts people in a bind, because it says, “your negativity caused this, so you should definitely become negative about your negativity, while simultaneously being grateful for the wake-up call.” I think more and more people are waking up to how terrible this narrative is. I believe it’s interwoven with white supremacy and its libertarian, bootstrapping notions of destiny which conveniently ignore systemic and structural realities which can affect health. So I think anyone who wants to explore dismantling those ideas—or at least learn how I’ve tried to—will enjoy the read.
Having said that, I still try to name the beautiful parts of my experience with—and despite—an upended life. I’ve found it’s true that small mercies and miracles can still be found even in the midst of personal catastrophe, especially once the early grief has worn down. I just think it’s important to bring more nuance to the difficult, self-determined process of meaning-making and reclamation. And I think lots of folks are hungry for that right now.
KN: Finally, where can folks find you and the book online?
If you’d like to learn more about self-publishing your book, check out our self-publishing services.
Kelly Notaras is the founder of kn literary arts and the author of THE BOOK YOU WERE BORN TO WRITE: Everything You Need to (Finally) Get Your Wisdom Onto the Page and Into the World, published by Hay House. An editor for 20 years, she’s worked at HarperCollins, Penguin, Hyperion and Sounds True. She speaks regularly at the Hay House Writer’s Workshops and offers consultation by appointment. Find out more about how she can help you with your book.