The Anatomy Of A Writing Career
Written by
Lissa Rankin, MD
April 2013
Written by
Lissa Rankin, MD
April 2013

The journey began in 2007, when I left my stable, lucrative career as a physician to pursue my dream of being a professional writer.  My behavior seemed pretty reckless to those who loved me. I gave up a six figure income and my house in San Diego with a view of the ocean and cashed in my retirement account so I could buy my freedom (to quit my job, I had to pay a $120,000 malpractice tail in case I ever got sued in the future.)

My husband was unemployed, we had a newborn baby, and my backup plan was… well, not exactly backed up. But I did it. I took a leap of faith and spent the next year writing a memoir called I Don’t Do Men: Confessions of an OB/GYN. An agent loved it and swore that she would get in a “monkey knife fight” to represent my book. So I named her “Monkey Barbara,” and we high-fived over cocktails about the six-figure book deal we would get for the book Monkey Barbara called “Eat, Pray, Vagina.”

Only that didn’t happen. In fact, we didn’t get any book deals. Eight editors loved it, and eight marketing departments said they’d never heard of me, that I had no platform, and that it didn’t matter how good my writing was if they couldn’t sell it.

I was crushed. Finally, after a year of rejections, Monkey Barbara and I had a tearful release ceremony while drinking margaritas as I tore my manuscript into strips of paper, burned them, and tossed the ashes into the ocean. (Melodramatic - yes. Cathartic - yes.)


Enter Owning Pink

Monkey Barbara told me I had to start a blog if I wanted a career as a writer. This news left me fuming. I was already a doctor, a professional artist, and a writer. Now I had to become a blogger? WTF?

But Barbara insisted. So in 2009, I started a blog I called Owning Pink, named after an art series I had done several years earlier. When asked what my blog would be about, I answered, “Creativity, spirituality, health, sexuality, money, the environment, business, mental health - you know, everything that makes you whole.” I was promptly told this wouldn’t work, that I had to pick a niche. I refused and went about creating a website featuring over thirty bloggers that left branding experts using me as a case study for how not to brand yourself.


What’s Up Down There?

Three months after launching my website and establishing myself on social media, I had attracted a large audience, and one of the eight editors who rejected my memoir reached out to Monkey Barbara with an idea for a book she wanted me to write. It wasn’t the book I dreamed of writing. Her idea was for a Q&A type book about all the questions you’d only ask your gynecologist if she were your best friend - which was great, only I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into a gynecology box.

But who was I to argue with the chance to finally publish a book - any book? So I agreed to take on the project. We called it What’s Up Down There?   

I wrote a book proposal and a few sample chapters, and the book wound up going to auction, but in a “best bid” blind auction, four publishing houses all offered the same advance of $15,000. Monkey Barbara and I were disappointed. It was a far cry from the six-figure dream we’d had for I Don’t Do Men. The head of one of the publishing houses said, “Nobody cares about vaginas.” WHAT? Barbara and I were outraged.

But ultimately Barbara said, “Well, that must be what it’s worth,” and we accepted the offer from the editor at St. Martin’s Press.


When Book Sales Are Disappointing

In 2010, I worked my ass off to promote What’s Up Down There? I got a sponsor who paid to send me to colleges around the country, where I spoke to large audiences of young women, who had the opportunity to anonymously ask me what was up down there for themselves. I hired a private publicist. I did what I could to leverage my online audience. I spent five months speaking on stages and in book stores around the country.

But it soon became clear that the publisher was right. Really, nobody cared about vaginas, and book sales were slow, in spite of all the work I’d done to promote the book.

Why were book sales so slow? The answer is probably multi-pronged. The reality is that most books never pay out even small advances, that books are hard to sell, that people are infinitely distracted, and that bestsellers are rare. But it’s probably more than that. My blog was more about learning to live and love fearlessly than it was about gynecology. I had an audience, but my book was too much of a departure from what my audience had come to expect from me. If my book had been called Owning Pink, it might have been an easier sell…


Post-Publishing Depression

January 2011 was a dark time. I told people I had PPD (post-publishing depression.) All my dreams of New York Times bestseller stardom vanished. I was now officially $200,000 in debt. I had a large online platform but hadn’t figured out how to monetize it. And the next book I had written, another memoir I called Broken: One Doctor’s Search For The Lost Heart Of Medicine, was offered an $18,000 advance by my publisher. When I turned it down, Monkey Barbara ditched me, saying, “I did the best I could for you, and it’s not enough.” And she was right. I couldn’t afford to publish another book for only $18,000. I had a family to support, and she understood that. She was getting million dollar advances for fiction clients but barely scraping by with her nonfiction clients. She decided to focus exclusively on nonfiction and release me to find an agent who was a better fit. We agreed to break up and stay in love.

But things weren’t looking good for my writing career. Now I had no medical practice, no publisher, no agent, no money, and a poor track record with book sales. When I started interviewing other agents, they told me I needed publishing rehab because no publisher was going to give me a big phat book deal with my BookScan numbers as low as they were.


Publishing Rehab

What did they mean by publishing rehab? Was I going to have to 12 step my way to writing success?

Pretty much. According to the agents I interviewed, in order to get a big enough advance to pay the bills, I needed to either:

  • Land my own television show
  • Grow my online audience even bigger
  • Come up with a revolutionary idea for a book that had never been written and would capture the public imagination (think Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey)

I was tempted to follow the downward spiral concocted by my mind, one that would have led me to throw in the towel on my writing dreams and crawl back to my hospital job with my tail between my legs. But instead, I prayed for a miracle. And The Universe delivered.


The Whole Health Cairn

I was hiking on the California coast where I live when I had a vision, a crystal clear vision of a new wellness model based on the stacks of balanced stones you tend to see marking beaches and sacred landmarks. I hightailed it back to my house and drew the image I had seen. The vision was one of 10 stones that make up something called “whole health.” It was based on my belief that in order to be optimally healthy - and to heal yourself - you have to have not only good physical health habits, but also healthy relationships, a healthy professional life, a healthy sex life, a health spiritual life, a healthy creative life, a healthy living environment, and much more. (Click here to see the image of my whole health cairn).

I called it the Whole Health Cairn, and it became the foundation for the book I wound up writing about it, Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself.  I was still dating agents at that point. None had been willing to commit to me because my writing career hadn’t been looking so hot. But one agent – Michele - had continued to offer me guidance.

So I called Michele and told her about my book idea. I told her that when I was working with sick patients from the inner city of Chicago, it made sense that they weren’t healthy. They ate poorly, smoked, drank, and never exercised. But then I took a job at an integrative medicine practice in posh Marin County, where my patients religiously followed organic, vegan diets, worked out with personal trainers, got eight hours of sleep every night, took their vitamins, and spent a fortune on the best health care money can buy - and they were still sick. It got me wondering, what if there’s more to health than what they taught me in medical school?

Around that time, I became fascinated with case studies in the medical literature of spontaneous remissions from seemingly “incurable” illnesses - stage 4 cancers that disappeared, an HIV positive patient who became HIV negative, people whose heart disease vanished. I got curious whether there was any scientific validity to what some New Age gurus teach - that you can heal yourself.  I wondered whether we might have control over whether we’re blessed with spontaneous remission from illness - or whether we stay sick. (Spoiler alert - you can influence the outcome!)

The Whole Health Cairn turned out to be the missing link that tied together everything I had been blogging about for two years at that point.  Suddenly, I was able to tie together evidence that one could live an optimally healthy life and make their body ripe for spontaneous remission - and I could prove it in the medical literature! In that moment, Mind Over Medicine was born.


A Happy Ending

Turns out my idea was revolutionary enough to serve as publishing rehab. (Thank you for the miracle, Universe!) The book proposal went to auction, I was offered six-figure advances, and I chose to go with Hay House because they were so ideologically aligned (plus, more than any other publisher, they’re really making efforts to keep up with a rapidly changing industry.)  Hay House has since offered me a second book deal for my next book The Fear Cure: Cultivating Courage As Medicine For The Body, Mind, and Soul.

Mind Over Medicine finally launches May 7 (tomorrow!), and as my fellow writing sisters, I sincerely hope you’ll help me celebrate! To encourage preorders, Hay House is producing a live online event about making your body ripe for miracles with me and my very favorite writer, O magazine columnist, life coach, and New York Times bestselling author Martha Beck. If you buy the book now, you can enter your receipt number and participate in the live online event for free! You must purchase and enter your information by May 12th to register for the live online event. You can learn more here.


Keep The Faith, Sisters

Finally, my dream of writing professionally - and paying the bills - has come to fruition. But it could have been so easy to give up in January of 2011, when things were looking so grim.  This business of writing professionally is not for the faint of heart, and it takes a lot of courage to keep putting yourself out there, staring rejection or failure in the face, and holding onto a dream, in spite of it all.

Albert Einstein said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” Having slayed many dragons in my own writer’s journey, it’s now clear to me that resilience and trust are key. A friend once asked me how I endured the evil nothings of the Gremlins when I was in what I came to call “the narrow place.” And I told her I clung to an unerring faith that the Universe is a friendly place, that I am being guided, and that, no matter what happens, I’ll always land butter side up.

And so will you. So don’t ever give up. This writing life is incredibly rewarding - and so much freakin’ fun! But it’s not easy to be “in the arena,” as Brené Brown would say, when many others are in the stands, watching and judging us. 

I promise - it’s worth it. So keep the faith. And keep on writing, no matter how many obstacles you face.

Lissa Rankin

Lissa Rankin, MD: Creator of the health and wellness communities and, author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, 2013), TEDx speaker, and Health Care Evolutionary. Join her newsletter list for free guidance on healing yourself, and check her out on Twitter and Facebook.


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  • Lynette Benton

    What an incredible, empowering story, Lissa. I wish I knew how to easily "file" this on SheWrites so that I could periodically pull it out and read it to my writing students, and—okay, I admit it—to myself. I'll just bookmark it the old way. 

    Thanks for putting the story of your journey out there.

  • Sally Pfoutz

    Your story is fascinating, especially the moment when you had your epiphany while hiking the coast.  Good ideas I have had aplenty, and the fortitude to keep writing, too.  But the drive and the ability to "get published" alludes me.  I feel about your success the way I did when reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed, that you surely deserve it being so talented, driven and smart!  One minor question about Monkey Barbara.  You wrote:  "She was getting million dollar advances for fiction clients but barely scraping by with her nonfiction clients. She decided to focus exclusively on nonfiction and release me to find an agent who was a better fit."  Did you mean to say she decided to focus on fiction?

    I look forward to reading your books.     

  • Lisa Thomson

    Thank you Lissa, for sharing your story and inspiring me (and our sister writers).  Actually I read your post on BlogHer a few weeks ago about what med school didn't teach was great!  The publishing industry is sure a fickle place! I have survived the rejection by not expecting grand fame etc. :) I know that sounds funny but I live by the motto that if I sell a handful of books to women who NEED the message than I have succeeded.

  • Cynthia Howland

    great post.

    ...and having said that, I suddenly feel inspired to get back to the work of it

    thank you! cynthia

  • Very inspiring! Grace came into this, not by the Happy End but in the tireless following of our vision as writers, especially when we seem to be stuck in that tight space. We can't MAKE success. It is given to us if we trust our inner guidance.Thanks, Lissa!

  • This is so inspiring. I'm in that narrow place and just the other day as I was driving home I kept repeating to myself, "this life is for me and not against me...the world is a friendly place." I plan on buying your book and supporting you on your journey. I pray it's a best seller! Thank you, Lissa, for sharing this.

  • Carole DeSanti

    I love this story, and there's a lot to learn in here.  Thanks and congratulations, Lissa Rankin, and I look forward to reading your book.  

  • Pamela Booker

    What an amazing journey. Thanks for the inspiration, Lissa!

  • Thank you for sharing your story!  It gives hope to all of us.  :)

  • Suzy Soro

    Terrific post, Lissa. I'm so glad you went with Hay House, Louise is a paragon of healing and genius in this world and she is the beginning of Up! You were brave to quit your job, brave to never give up, brave to keep on going and I wish you ALL the best. My first memoir is out there and my second is due in the fall and I've been dragging my feet on the writing because my niche is Humor and Humor Be Hard On The Brain. But this time I'm self-publishing so I'll make more money than I did on the first. (Are you listening, Universe?)

  • Julie Luek

    I love the title and premise of your first book. Publishing is a fickle lover. Thanks for sharing your journey-- it gave me a few "hmmm" moments and hope. 

  • Thank you for the encouragement to "never give up" and the Einstein quote. Advice I will take straight to the heart as my own manuscript is out in the world.

  • Karyne Corum

    Lisa you are the universe speaking to me right now! First off, your book sounds amazing and I'm going to get a copy. I recently began to heal a body riddled with PCOS. Secondly, as I dig deeper into my latest MS, I am having wild fears of what if..what if it sucks, if people hate it, etc etc. After reading this, I realize, F*&^  the what ifs. I'm going in guns blazing.  Thanks.

  • Lissa Rankin, MD

    Thank you all!

    Pamela, a publisher did offer to publish I Don't Do Men, but I later realized it was a book I needed to write- but not one I wanted to publish. I was still in victim mode when I wrote it! Mad at health care, mad at my ex-husband. Ick. Now I take responsibility for my part in all of that. Sometimes what we think are books are really just LOOONG journal entries nobody needs to read! 

    I did write another yet unpublished memoir though- and I'll release it...some day.

    Much love


  • Pamela Olson

    Congrats on everything -- way to take a leap, and keep leaping until you found solid ground!

    I have a question, though -- whatever happened to "I Don’t Do Men: Confessions of an OB/GYN"?  It sounds fascinating to me.  If it's not published, have you considered self-publishing? It's very easy these days! I'll be happy to step you through it (or at least get you started) if you're interested. Even if it doesn't sell well, it's free to electronically published, and a little extra income (even if it's just coffee money) never hurts! You'll also have your toe in the water for if you ever decide to self-publish something else later on.

  • You know how they say the universe gives you what you need when you need it? Here's proof because this is just the post I needed today. Thank you!

  • Dear Lissa,

    It's incredible to read your post today since I was feeling not that great about the my book sales and wondering what on earth I could do to jumpstart things, get it known, etc., -- The feeling of giving up was creeping in and then I saw your post. Looks like even after years had gone by and things were looking somewhat glum, you just hung in there and trusted. I needed to read those words today and appreciate that you shared your story.

    Happy Birthday to Mind Over Medicine which apparently launched today. 

    Wishing you all the best with it.


  • Ericka Clay

    I subscribe to Kris Carr's site and learned about your book earlier this morning!  So glad you didn't give up because this is the type of book I've been looking for.  As someone who's a vegan and incredibly into holistic treatment, I can't wait to start reading!