I published a book last week. It's called Brain Changer: A Mother's Guide to Cognitive Science.
When I say I published it, I mean that I did everything. I formatted the text and created a cover out of a free-use photograph and an open source knock-off of Photoshop. I collected blurbs and wrote about myself in the third person: “Janine Kovac is the recipient of the Glushko Prize for distinguished research in cognitive science and of an Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship from Hedgebrook.”
I’d always imagined publishing a book like bringing a baby into the world and self-publishing was like a home birth where I called all the shots. In reality, it was more like rummaging through the fridge looking for ingredients to throw together for a salad.
My content was a series of blog posts I’d written in 2011 for the website Raising Happiness. The posts paired a tip for raising kids with a scene from my life navigating a risky twin pregnancy that resulted in micro preemie twins born three months before they were due—as viewed through the lens of cognitive science. Originally, the NICU/cognitive science motif had been the premise of a memoir, but agents told me it wasn’t possible. “It’s either a memoir or a science text; it can’t be both,” I heard over and over. As I learned how to build scenes, transitions, and tension, the narrative arc of the micro preemie story leaned away from cognitive science and toward—of all things—the unexpected end of my career as a ballet career. (That book is still looking to make its way into the world.)
The entire time that I prepared the text, I had the sinking feeling that my book would only exist in the world because I put it there, not because I had a team of professionals championing my story. It would be "just" self-published. The thought of what my book would look like—a tiny volume of 78 pages and a cover cobbled together by my amateur efforts—made me wince.
All this self-deprecation brought to light another truth—I was embarrassed of my work for no other reason than the fact that I was the one who’d done it. It made no difference that the cognitive science came from my prize-winning thesis or that I had just received an award from Hedgebrook for emerging writers.
Even my self-doubt embarrassed me. Confidence doesn’t come from outside validation—that much I’d learned as a ballet dancer. It has to be nurtured from within. If I were to churn this dilemma through my cognitive science sausage-maker, I’d ask myself why does this book feel like a salad and not a baby? How is it that one can have unconditional love for a baby but only contempt for a salad?
Most importantly, if I couldn’t be proud of this little book, what would make me proud?
Two weeks ago UPS dropped off a box of books from the first print run on my doorstep. I prepared to cringe. I opened the box and laid out two dozen copies along the floor, each one bright green (because that was the only color I could make when I fiddled with the color saturation levels).
I did that, I thought, remembering how long it took to paste a solid square on a jpg. I smiled with pride. Would people know that’s a photograph of a real neural network on the cover or recognize the typeface as the default font for computer code? Unlikely. Does it matter? Probably not. These were choices I made, like choosing Romaine lettuce over spinach. I like Romaine.
As I wrote thank-you letters and sent copies to friends and family, I realized something else. I’d written the book I’d intended to write seven years ago—a memoir of our time in the NICU and how cognitive science helped my husband and me through the most traumatic time of our lives. There are scenes and transitions and a narrative arc. And since my twins had a very challenging time in those three long months in the NICU, there was plenty of tension. That story was there back in 2011 when I originally wrote the essays, but I didn’t see it when I thought of it as “just” blog posts.
Bound together as a little green book, I could see that I wrote a book that says exactly what I wanted to say. Granted, it’s only 10,000 words, which is probably why the gatekeepers didn’t think it wasn’t possible to write about the NICU and cognitive science together. Perhaps 78 pages is the limit of such a story. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It just means that it’s a short book.
Is it a good book? Will people benefit from it? I hope so. Our local NICU has asked for copies to give to families and one copy is on its way to the director of a medical school on the East Coast.
But what really matters is that I made a salad and I like everything I put in it.