It’s never too late for a new beginning — and everything can be treated as a “new beginning” — that is how we are able to find the “gifts” in anything life hands us. I have lost so much, but I have also gained new experience, discovered a new self, and met thousands of people I never would have met had this not happened to me. Who knew that at age eighteen my life would change forever? As the years go by, I’m less tempted to wander down that road of wondering what life would have been like had this never happened. Detours have the power to change us — they lead us on a different path. We stray from our origins, but in doing so, we encounter things we never would have experienced and walk through doors that would otherwise have been closed. How do you learn to love your detours? You follow the path and see where it takes you — that makes you a DETOURIST.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Oestreicher.Amy is an Audie Award-nominated author, writer for The Huffington Post, international speaker, health advocate, award-winning actress, mixed media artist, songwriter and playwright. As a survivor and “thriver” of multiple traumas, Amy eagerly shares the gifts of life’s “beautiful detours” and the tremendous gifts that can be reaped from adversity. She has recently published her memoir and creative self-help guide, My Beautiful Detour: An Unthinkable Journey from Gutless to Grateful. To celebrate her own “beautiful detour”, Amy created the #LoveMyDetour campaign, to help others cope in the face of unexpected events. Learn more at www.amyoes.com.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
Igrew up loving to create, mostly musical theatre. it was only after my traumas did, I learn to use creativity as a survival skill. Then, I was able to turn my creativity into a healing means of expression. Stories transform our personal experience, enrich our community and teach others the lessons we have learned for ourselves — they’re reliable patterns we can lean on in a world with no map. As an artist, creating stories is my way to uncover the certainty and significance from chaos and unsteadiness. After surviving a decade of trauma, I discovered this storytelling “survival strategy” as a roadmap and anchor to myself. Once I could start to articulate the events that had taken place in my life, I started to reframe them, and find the “beauty” in the “detours” my life had taken.
Writing is a way for me to express who I am and who I aim to be. And truthfully, there’s just a lot of me. As a high school English student, I loved writing about anything from The Scarlet Letter to US Presidents to the Krebs Cycle. Just as I was about to wrap up my senior year of high school, I abruptly developed a blood clot, endured ten years of medical trauma, 27 surgeries, and six years unable to eat or drink anything.
To cope, I locked myself in my room all day and used the survival skill I knew best — writing. From sunrise to sunset, I’d journal thousands of pages just to keep my fingers busy. Journaling became a compulsion — a desperate attempt to document circumstances in my life that were unfamiliar, a way to process a life that I was suddenly catapulted into. I didn’t recognize myself, but with the power of words, I could articulate my reaction to my life. And in doing so, I could start to create who I was to become.
Suddenly, I became fascinated with the art of writing and the power of words. Soon enough, I couldn’t stop! I felt driven to share my story, not only to share what I had been through, but the gifts I had found from everything, that I think can truly inspire many people. It seems to be so far!
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Yes! When I was a teenager, I was so obsessed with William Finn’s music and lyrics in his musical, March of the Falsettos, that I wrote him a fifteen-page fan letter. I was beyond surprised when he called me the next month on a Saturday night, telling me how touched he was by what I wrote. I was so excited that William Finn called my house on a Saturday night that I took a picture of my caller I.D. and put it in my scrapbook just to prove it.
When I was in a coma three years later, my mom was looking through my scrapbook in the hospital and found that picture. She called the number and told him what had happened to me. So here I was receiving my high school diploma in the middle of the ICU, and in attendance were my parents, my headmaster, my six best friends, and William Finn.
When I finally not only regained my health but wrote a one-woman musical about the impossible odds I had conquered, appropriately titled, “Gutless & Grateful,” I was thrilled when William Finn showed up to see it. The next year, he asked me to bring it to his own series at a reputable theatre in the Berkshires, which I had admired since I was a kid. Since then, I’ve toured my one-woman show across the country, and William Finn, first my theatre idol, then mentor, then artistic producer, and always an inspiration to me, to this day! (He’s mentioned in my book at some very surprising points!)
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Yes, before I learned the art of “restraint” or “less is more.” I survived on my all-or-nothing mentality. Before surgeons could make me a digestive system, I persevered through those seven years unable to eat or drink anything by constantly “doing” and staying busy. Then, once I emerged triumphantly from trauma, I finally mustered up the courage to share what I had been through, and more importantly, what I had learned from it. I was extremely inspired, and driven, but I knew virtually nothing about the book and literary world — especially doing this as a profession! I just knew I needed to get this “book” out there. So, I spent a few good (hundreds of) emails trying to contact literary publishers and agents before I frankly even knew what they were. Only later did I understand things like “query letters,” “business etiquette,” and “don’t send a first draft.” But I certainly learned from my all-of-nothing-shamelessly-submit-everything-everywhere phase! I call it “awakening to the world with eager eyes and restless laptop.”
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Many at once. I’ve taken 19 of my original songs, over 200 of my mixed media artworks, poetry and monologues to create (and perform) another original one-woman musical, Passageways: Songs of Connection, Abnormal and Sublime. Passageways is an original song cycle with live music, and artwork projections, all created by the performer. Music, humor and art, interwoven with autobiographical narrative, as the creativity of the artist becomes an unexpected passageway through profound crisis. On passageways, there’s no way in, no way out, only through. So why not laugh, dance and paint our way towards the light? I’ve never combined a play with live artwork before, so I’m very excited!
I’m also designing a line of clothes and accessories with Spoonful of Stars based on my own mixed media artwork
I continue to collect the “Detourist” stories of others on my “Why Not Wednesday” column, eventually combining them into a very inspiring anthology with stories readers across the world have submitted.
I wrote an am playing a character in a play based on my grandmother’s life as a truly inspiring Holocaust survivor and wonderful woman. I was driven to know; how did my grandmother heal once she was liberated? How did four of my uncles and my grandfather heal after fighting as partisans during the war? More Than Ever Now is a contemporary play exploring the relationship between history and memory, and the role of storytelling in preserving a legacy. The play combines verbatim theatre combines is inspired by the literal sewing that enabled my grandmother to survive the death camps, as well as the act of threading one family’s unfinished stories into a seamless narrative — a tapestry that reunites relatives across space, time, and understandings.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
I literally never give up. Persistence. In every respect. Keep going, never giving up, even when I was exhausted or overwhelmed by the idea of what I wanted to accomplish. I literally was a girl waking up from a coma trying to find her place in a big world. I didn’t know where to start. So, I just started somewhere — anywhere. And just kept going from there — blindly at first, but eventually finding a focus, and then just following it intently. Persistence softened with a faith that with that determination, I would get there. To cope through years of frightening uncertainty, when a completely blank road, canvas, notebook, or screen was set out in front of me, rather than panicking at the idea of “nothing” or “what to start with,” I just started with one push of a keyboard, one note, even just a mark. And every day, I make sure I clear out at least a few minutes, even at the busiest of times, where I can at least create something. I believe it puts me in a good frame of mind to continue whatever story I’m trying to tell.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
Wow — there are just too many! The night I fell into a coma was our Passover Seder. No one had any clue what was going on; I was suddenly in a terrible amount of pain, until my stomach literally exploded on the operating table. But the real interesting part is that one of my brothers was working in politics in Washington DC at the time. He rushed right to the ICU as soon as he got the call from my Dad that I wouldn’t make it through the night alive. My brother, Jeff, ended up staying in the ICU with me for the many months I was there, and keeping a journal of the first 72 days. I share some surprises — some devastating, but most are surprisingly humorous — from his journal, showing how the best support a family can be is to just try to keep the “life” and “love” burning as bright as they can. Jeff was so inspired by how the doctors miraculously saved my life, that he dropped out of politics, went to med school, and has been a doctor for quite a few years now.
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
It’s never too late for a new beginning — and everything can be treated as a “new beginning” — that is how we are able to find the “gifts” in anything life hands us.
I have lost so much, but I have also gained new experience, discovered a new self, and met thousands of people I never would have met had this not happened to me. Who knew that at age eighteen my life would change forever? As the years go by, I’m less tempted to wander down that road of wondering what life would have been like had this never happened. Detours have the power to change us — they lead us on a different path. We stray from our origins, but in doing so, we encounter things we never would have experienced and walk through doors that would otherwise have been closed.
How do you learn to love your detours? You follow the path and see where it takes you — that makes you a DETOURIST.
A Detourist looks for the upside of obstacles. They follow that twisted path because they’re curious to see where it could lead. The road may be long, tough, and filled with even more detours, surprises, and unexpected turns.
But a Detourist just keeps going and let’s those twists and turns create an even stronger, savvy traveler. If you’re a Detourist, every obstacle is an amazing opportunity to grow, learn, and see all that life has to offer — and who doesn’t like to travel?
Traveling as a Detourist can be tough. A detour is not a free ride, but it is a thrilling one. When the road gets rocky, the important thing to know us that were not alone. So, when life gets stressful, or doesn’t go as you plan, think of it as a detour — and make it a beautiful one. As you travel, remember to reach out for the help you need. We’re stronger when we navigate our detours together.
And most importantly — don’t underestimate hope and HUMOR as the medicines which can have the most dramatic impacts.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a bestselling author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
Wondering where to start. I loved writing but was very new to the business of books. So, I just trusted that the strength of my words would be enough. Words gave me strength by helping me define what strength was and how I could use it to survive. As I wrote, I discovered ways to handle difficult situations successfully and to learn from my situation and grow. Strength is the ability to keep a positive attitude towards a situation that proves to be hard and painful and manage it in a healthy way. Strength is the ability to admit weakness without fearing to be hurt. Strength is the ability to overcome fear. The more definitions I was able to write, the more empowered I felt.
No one else can write the story of our life — it is what makes us unique. Yet in telling our stories we find commonality — we all can relate to certain themes and feelings. By writing every day, I was telling myself that I was not the only one who had ever experienced pain, uncertainty or frustration. I was so alone, yet through my words, I felt more connected than ever.
Every day we have a different story in us, something that is always changing. Telling our stories helps us process it — just like you learn something better yourself when you must teach someone. It also makes us feel less alone –we are stronger in numbers. Through our shared experience, we can heal.
And I had a lot of healing to do, which is why the words seem to flow through me and never end. By the end of every night, I was exhausted, as though I had just spilled my entire soul onto my laptop. But I was relieved — one more day that was documented.
This writing was not the accomplishment. The writing was how I let myself believe that I was on my own hero’s journey, and every day was a new chapter. Now I had a story to tell, a message to share.
Every story is with sharing. So even if you don’t know what “story” you tell, you must start somewhere. Someone will resonate. A few initial rejections are really okay. Know that your story is worth getting out there.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I’m a big nature girl, so I love Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, John Muir, and Annie Dillard. I also love reading plays, memoirs, historical fiction, and graphic novels!
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
I had always wanted to write a book that is an interesting hybrid of: part memoir and autobiography, graphic novel, choose your own adventure novel, self-help book, inspirational book, and creativity/art guidebook. I know that sounds all over the place, but if there is something I’ve learned through this beautiful detour, it is that healing comes with everything — just being present on this earth, being aware, awake, and grateful, and expressing that through whatever means possible — being creative in the ways that you can.
I had no idea my story would have such an impact, but it was just a very honest and raw — yet humorous — expression of what I was going through at the time, which really resonated with people. I love how words and writing can be such a transformative tool — it changes me while I’m writing or creating — but also, it’s a mirror, where I look into it and see what I was going through, yet someone else can approach it and come away with some lesson in their own life. That’s what writing is to me.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?
Don’t wait to be inspired — start with anything. Don’t wait for the “meaning” behind what you write. Make it.
They say that everything happens for a reason. But that’s not always true.
Sometimes, you have to make it happen.
I think about my old life, and I miss it. I miss the simplicity. I look at old pictures and I the joy and innocence in my eyes. I can’t be 13 again but I can be the best 32 I can. But sometimes I wonder what life would be like if this never had happened –
This is not the path that I planned for myself — but does anyone’s life ever work out exactly how they plan it?
I was led astray, and hurt, and betrayed, and dehumanized, taken apart and put back together, but differently.
But my passion never went away. I kept my hunger alive.
Now I know that my role in life is still to be that same performer I always wanted to be when I was 13.
But now with an even greater gift to give.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1: Don’t listen to “no” or “you can’t” — especially from yourself.
It’s natural when someone tells you can’t do something to think about it a bit. And many times, I believed them. I went to auditions with bags attached to me. I attended hot yoga daily while connected to an IV pump. I have gotten many funny looks over the years and some awkward situation made me feel very embarrassed and upset. It’s never easy to ignore what other people think of a career move, or a comment that might touch on an insecurity. So, it made me think about what they said, occasionally pity myself for a bit. In the process of putting together Gutless & Grateful, it was easy to compare myself to former colleagues that were doing theatre, but “bigger” and “better” than I was — on Broadway, on tours, seemingly “breezing through” their career. But I think the most important (and difficult) thing for me was patience. Telling myself that I will get there — this is my own unique path, and as long as I am still doing what I love, in whatever shape or form, I am staying authentic to my own path.
Listen to your instincts, trust them, and experience the liberation and excitement that comes with saying “yes.”
2: How to start? That’s what ART is for. Creativity is the best writing inspiration. When words won’t come right away, I go right to a sketch pad.
Start from anywhere. Don’t compare yourself and work with what you have. Don’t accept what you start with. Visualize what you’d like to be and manifest it — will it. The most important thing is to really tune into your passion and work from there — wherever it may lead you — no matter how crazy. If it is authentic, it’s real. And with a bit of dedication, it will happen. I actually love writing on google docs on my phone, walking outside! On the back of a napkin, in the margins of my weekly planner — I’m a big scribbler too!
3. Push past the fear of telling your story, whatever it is.
Sometimes we feel bogged down because we let the “uniqueness” of our struggles make us feel victimized. Instead, we should find the uniqueness not in the specific obstacle we are facing but in what that obstacle forces us to do. This simple change of thinking gives us the confidence to trust that we can move on from it because we have something else more empowering to give us character.
On detours, we are still us, plus whatever we choose to reap from that new experience. We confuse our circumstance for a character trait or role. But if we focus on the uniqueness of our detour’s gifts, we are forced to cling to all the good that comes from obstacles. That’s when the magic happens. Adversity becomes a detour like everyone else’s, and that is how we gain compassion for and from each other. Even when one detour ends and you find the meaning from it, another one could branch off right from there. Detours keep us on our toes. We have to be in a ready stance, our eyes and hearts open to the sky.
Fear is energy, and we have the power to transform energy into whatever we want. So, take that fearful, energetic pull in you that’s making your heart pound and use it for some kind of creative good. Let curiosity propel you.
Start by asking different questions: I wonder what would happen if…? Be curious. What is your why? Where does your road lead?
4. Don’t be afraid of failing; be afraid of not trying at all. Once, I wrote MYSELF a rejection letter, and ripped it up, just to get my fear of rejection over and done with.
5. Writing is hard work. Take care of yourself. Push yourself to take that risk, but don’t push yourself so far over the edge that you forget what YOU really need. I had to do that many times — that’s why my book took nearly seven years! But it was well worth it, and I must say, the self-care is what really gave me the focus to finish this book and be truly proud of what I have to offer.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want to inspire people to flourish because of rather than in spite of their challenges. That’s why my first TEDx Talk was all about “detours.”
#LoveMyDetour aims to encourage growth and healing by sharing our stories and transform communities by inspiring people to open their minds and reframe their view of “detours” into a new direction for life.
My ultimate goal is to create an organization, center or foundation that promotes creativity and healing to share what I’ve learned with the world. I just want to make a difference in the world by doing what I love, and helping others access their own passion to tell their stories, and move through any detours in their own life I want to keep planting seeds for change in the world we live in: How do we create a community that supports every individual in their own process of healing? How can we reach out to others, and what is the benefit, for them as well as for us? I hope to empower others to find happiness in the little moments. You don’t always have to be thinking about the big picture.
How do we reap the gifts of a detour? We remember that when life does surprise us, we’re capable of getting through anything.
“Detours” have created the most surprisingly lush scenery. I envision a world where “detours” in life are everyday blessings. The road is open with open possibility, with voluptuous curves, with wandering wonder.
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Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!