The backstory of a book, ‘Words to Live By’

  • “Words to Live By” will be released Sept. 11 at annual Cancer Connection fundraising event at Quonquont Farm in Whately. CONTRIBUTED

For the Recorder
Published: 9/9/2022 2:36:43 PM
Modified: 9/9/2022 2:32:57 PM

This book did not begin as a book. It began as a notion, an idea I had in 2013.

My notion, my vision for what you are now reading, was born in a coincidental partnership with Pam Roberts and Keith Carver whom I may never have met had it not been for Cancer Connection. Cancer Connection had provided a way out of my solitary journey through the uncharted wilderness of melanoma into several rooms of connection with others dealing with the dreaded big “C” — cancer.

I can no longer remember who alerted me to the fact that Pam Roberts led a free writing workshop at Cancer Connection each Tuesday for people diagnosed with cancer and their families. I so well remember the first time I went to Pam’s “Spirit of the Written Word” workshop in Cancer Connection’s Living Room in the Silk Mill Building in Northampton on the edge of Florence. It was a group of people with a variety of cancers. What we all shared in common beyond our cancer was each person’s belief that they couldn’t write. I had been a writer throughout my professional career – department and board reports, press releases and fund-raising proposals, etc. No personal writing except for occasional journal notes of anguish during the “hard times.” Pam, a breast cancer survivor herself, assured us that we all were writers, that we all had something important to say and that we would find the words to express that something.

After having everyone introduce themselves, Pam gave us our first prompt. We began to write. The only sounds in the room were the scratching of pens and pencils and the muted sounds of laptop keyboards. The writings that came out of that group, out of that “living room,” had enormous impact and covered a wide-ranging emotional landscape for all of us.

Pam and I became frequent correspondents which led us to collaborate on a book of writings by participants in her workshop. The book is entitled “Words to Live By” and was first published in 2008 with a second printing in 2010 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Cancer Connection. The book is dedicated “to all who have been touched by cancer.” We used a quote from Pat Schneider, the founder of Amherst Writers and Artists whose writing workshop teaching method Pam uses with her own writing groups. Today an international network of workshop leaders use the writing method described in Pat’s book “Writing Alone and With Other.” We used a quote from Schneider’s book on our dedication page of “Words to Live By”:

“When we write, we create, and when we offer our creation to one another, we close the wound of loneliness and may participate in healing the broken world. Our words, our truth, our imagining, our dreaming, may be the best gift we have to give.”

Pat Schneider died in August 2020 after a long battle with cancer.

Fast forward to 2013. Looking back, I have been graced to be one of the first participants in a Cancer Connection support group for men living with cancer, facilitated by yet one more cancer survivor, Diedrick Snoek. Diedrick led our continually growing group for 8 years, stepping back in 2010 when his wife Barbara died unexpectedly. Just the year before, Barbara has been instrumental in creating the Hospice of Fisher Home in Amherst, the area’s only independent hospice facility where people can go for end-of-life care that addresses not only a patients’ physical needs, but their social, emotional and spiritual needs as well.

On April 24, 2014, Keith Carver joined our weekly Wednesday men’s group gatherings after being diagnosed with prostate cancer. He told me that he was “scared stiff” and that his doctor had advised him that “it was just as important to treat the head as it was the cancer itself.”

A retired UMass professor of engineering, I quickly learned that Keith was an avid, long-time nature photographer. He showed me some of his bird photos on his iPhone and I spent hours looking at his website that is home to hundreds and hundreds of his nature photographs.

One Monday morning I awoke thinking about the positive responses to “Words to Live By” that Pam and I had put together. Wondering if we might create a second book of writings by people dealing with cancer, I suddenly had a vision of a book with writings embraced within some of Keith’s fantastic photographs. If people had been moved by the written word in “Words to Live By,” how might they react to a combination of words and images that reinforced each other?

Two days later at our Wednesday men’s group, I asked Keith what he thought about this idea. He loved the idea and without hesitation agreed to let me select photos from his amazing collection of photographs. I called Pam immediately after the meeting and told her about Keith’s enthusiasm for providing photos and asked her what she thought about the words and images idea. She also thought the concept was great but felt that we might want to expand the concept to include writings from area writers.

Thus, the initial project team came together in June 2014 to develop this new project. We envisioned merging each written piece into one of Keith’s photos on the left-hand page of a journal with a blank right-hand page. Our hope was that the combination of words and images from nature would encourage people dealing with cancer to write down their own thoughts and feelings.

In the spring of 2013 after his diagnosis of tonsil cancer, James McDonald, a neighbor of Diedrick’s, “found his way” to the men’s support group. After his treatment for throat cancer was completed, James wanted to find a way to contribute to Cancer Connection. As a professional book designer, James suggested to then Executive Director Betsy Neisner that he might design a set of note cards for Cancer Connection using Keith’s stunning nature photography if Keith was agreeable. Once again, Keith was more than agreeable and provided photos for each season of the year. Betsy was instrumental in working out a good deal with the printer James found for her.

James wrote that Betsy “was a wonderful ally to work with, indeed she was a wonderful ally to have as I went through my cancer journey.” Betsy retired in 2016 and we lost her to cancer on August 13, 2022. Little did Pam, Keith and I imagine that five years later James would become the fourth partner in the creation of this book.

In July 2014 we issued a “Call to Pioneer Valley Writers for Contemplative Poetry & Prose Pieces.” The call for writers began with this statement: Three cancer survivors are creating a journal for Cancer Connection. Entitled “Contemplation,” the intention is to create a personal journal for those affected by cancer which will help them find a path of hope and inspiration through the unfamiliar wilderness that is the cancer journey. Cancer Connection will make “Contemplation” available to its clients and to the general public for purchase as a fund-raising mechanism to support its various programs.

“Words to Live By” will be released Saturday, Sept. 11 at the annual Cancer Connection fundraising event at Quonquont Farm in Whately.


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