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When Breath Becomes Air : A lesson in Memoir

Book review , memoir

I read “When breath becomes air” because I had heard so much about it, and because I am studying the art of writing memoir. I’ve published a memoir which I think should be rewritten from scratch. I finished a second one, but I am rewriting it from scratch.

So I turned to Dr. Paul Kalanithi for wisdom and inspiration. Boy, did he deliver.

"When Breath Becomes Air" is a memoir we can learn from. It is the story of a life of hope, joy and expectation abruptly cut short by Cancer. This review analyses the "writerly" aspects of the book. In the process it reveals much of the story, so if you intend to read the book you may want to stop here.

The biggest challenge in such a book is that the reader knows the end. It’s on the blurb, and in every single book review. With that critical piece gone, how do you still engage the reader? Paul does so by taking us along on his difficult journey. We live his life, share his love, joy & pain. We experience utter despair in his book – I wept more than once. His skill as a storyteller makes us his fellow traveler.

Chronology is the first thing one notices. The book is mostly linear - it starts with Paul's diagnosis and ends with his death. He goes back into his youth where he describes his love for literature and medicine. He talks about human experiences as a medical student and a doctor. He makes you appreciate the sensitive nature of the work of a neurosurgeon - you understand the huge burden it carries. He touches upon his relationship with Lucy, his wife. He then brings the story back to the present. He moves across different times in his life and is able to tie all the pieces together into a single coherent narrative.

The story covers two aspects of his life: professional and personal. Paul shares his angst over his career - and how his goalpost shifts with his life expectancy. His work defines his identity, but what work he chooses depends upon how long he has to live. If he has 10 years, he would continue as a neurosurgeon. If only two, a writer. His decision to finish his residency is an act of hope - that he may continue as a neurosurgeon. But despite completing it, he is unable to attend his own graduation because of a relapse. That is cruel, but he is matter-of-fact about it. Rarely does any self-pity come through.

The story effortlessly entwines his personal and professional life. He talks about his love for Lucy. He shares the trouble in their marriage before his diagnosis, and how the cancer makes their relationship stronger. The decision to have a baby is particularly touching. He mentions his conversation with his wife where she says

"Dont you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?"

And he replies "Wouldn’t it be great if it did?"

The reader forms a mental picture of him without having the traditional “Character description”. His whole persona is built up one spare detail at a time. His smooth skin turns up only when the blood thinning drugs cause acne and bleeding. He is obviously fit because he hikes and runs and cycles.

A similar picture of Lucy would help. She is obviously a beautiful human that the reader learns to love, respect and empathise with. But a physical description would help a lot. A reader wants to see the characters. But we cannot not see Lucy because she has no physical being. The reader doesn’t know if she is Caucasian or black. Blond or Brunette. We can guess she is tall because “they fit so well” but that’s pretty much all you get to work with. She remains a concept in the story – lacking any physical form. Another small peeve was the use of the word "attending" as a noun. At first glance it comes across as a typo. After coming across it again and again, the reader realizes that it is a short form for "Attending Neurosurgeon". Medical jargon never explained. 

But this is nitpicking,

The story deals with much bigger questions - our mortality and the meaning of life. Paul believes god is important. That god matters. He accepts the fallibility of science. There is one scene towards the end when he is with his Oncologist Emma, and she tell him "You have a good five years left". And he says "She pronounced it, but without the authoritative tone of a true oracle, without the confidence of a true believer. She said it, instead, like a she was not so much speaking to me as pleading, a mere human, with whatever forces and fates truly control these things".

Paul is a writer with great dexterity. One cannot help but marvel at his determination to not do an average job. He wrote late into his disease, but the book isn't just text piled on more text. He has worked hard to edit the story down to the bone to make it flow with clarity and grace.

There is a certain humility with which Paul writes. Even when he talks about his successes - which are many - it comes across as humble, not boastful. As you read through the book, you get to like and respect Dr Paul Kalanithi. That is because he always comes through as human. I could relate to him. I empathize with him. And that is the sign of a great Memoir.

Note : In March 2020, the Himalayan Memoir Writers Retreat will be hosted by Alex Lemon & Chetan Mahajan.. The retreat will be hosted at the Himalayan Writing Retreat in Satkhol Village, Uttarakhand, India, For more details, and to apply, please visit .  

5 Reasons why a Blogging Workshop Scores Over Online Courses

Blogging , participant post

Contributor: Praveen Malik

Would you attend a blogging workshop if you are already a blogger making a decent living? Would you go 350 KM away from Delhi to the Himalayas for a blogging retreat and spend almost 5 days in a quaint place?

If you had asked me these questions 2 months ago, my answer would have been No. I would have rather gone for an online course. But last week I went to the blogging class organized by Chetan and returned home more knowledgeable. Let me share my story with you.

My Background

I am an Educationist and a Blogger with expertise in Project Management. My blog ( is one of the top 3 blogs in its niche and has decent viewership. I have good social media presence as well.

I started my blogging journey about 8 years ago. At that time, I used to hold project management training classes. I thought I would be able to showcase my PM expertise through the blog. This would enhance my reputation in the professional world and help me garner more business.

I am happy to say that blog did increase my business and it continues to do so.

About two years ago, I started using the blog to sell project management learning products ( This gave me additional income which I had not perceived earlier. In fact, over last two years, I have reduced training programs to give more time to the blog.

Why Did I Decide To Join Blogging Retreat?

Till about two months ago, I was not planning to take any blogging course. I have good blogging knowledge and my blog was doing well.

One of my dear friends wanted to start his own blog. He came across Chetan’s blogging workshop and suggested that we take up this course together. I looked and it and said yes. I thought, I would learn something new.

I am happy to say that I learned quite a few new things during the workshop. More than the learning, it has given me renewed motivation for building a much bigger brand.

The blogging workshop has immensely helped me. It should help a beginner much more.

Blogging Workshop vs. Online Course

In last few years, I have conducted many classroom workshops. I believe a class provides much better learning experience than an online course.

Online courses have their own space but a class has many advantages. Let me enumerate a few:

  • It is the most concentrated form of training. You can learn a lot within a short span of time.
  • You get dedicated attention and guidance from an Instructor. You can ask questions and clarify your doubts immediately.
  • You get an opportunity to meet and interact with like-minded individuals. This enhances the learning.
  • An interactive class environment keeps you motivated and improves the learning process.
  • You can validate your learning through practical exercises.

Concluding Remarks

Blogging is a great means to establish a brand. It helps you to showcase your expertise, grow your business, and make some additional income. You should serious consider starting one.

What is your opinion about blogging? Are you thinking of starting a blog? Do you think it can help you or your business?

Please leave a comment.

A Technophobe Dinosaur goes to a Blogging Retreat

participant post

Contributor : Ruchi Chauhan

It wouldn’t make sense to go for a blogging retreat when you’ve never written before, right? When you can barely even operate your laptop or smartphone ..... well, smartly. But the website had me at ‘you will leave with your blog set up and first post published’. “This is exactly what I need to get off the ground, I must sign up right now”, I thought, quickly filling out the details until it asked me to share a sample of my writing. “Uh, uh, no. This is not happening. Forget it, I won’t go.”

15 days later, I still couldn’t get it out of my mind and decided to apply without a sample and see what happens. So I did, crossed my fingers, and thought, “well, if they don’t accept me for lack of a sample, fair enough”. Mercifully, Chetan Mahajan, the host of the retreat called within hours, and such was the warmth and welcome in his voice, that I immediately confirmed.

Chetan included me in the email chain and took me into the fold. And assigned homework!! ‘Share 10 topics for your blog’. “Are you kidding me?!! 10? I barely have one!” But I am afraid of getting chucked out of class, so I send him 2, privately. Hoping it will be enough to buy some time, asking myself, “what have you got yourself into?”

Seven of us were on the same train to Kathgodam. From there, we headed up to Satkhol in 2 cabs, getting to know each other, making lasting friendships. As we arrived at Frozen Woods, Chetan and Kiruba rushed out to greet us along with Manoj, the owner of the property and a fellow participant. Somehow, it felt like we were meeting friends - there was no ice to break.

We settled into our rooms, and soon set out on a trek, ending up on top of a mountain just in time to soak in a magnificent sunset. Coming back to hot pakodas lovingly made by Manoj hit the spot. That night, we sat around a bonfire and shared our stories. Each one powerful. Each one beautiful. Each one moving. This exercise in sharing and letting our guards down in a supportive environment set the tone for the next 2 days.

The next morning, we dove straight in. We discussed the barriers and fears we each face getting started. These were addressed with constructive, practical inputs from everyone in the group. It was interesting to see that a lot of us had the same concerns. These were addressed in more detail over the course of the retreat.

That afternoon, we got started on actually setting up our blog. “What? you mean now?” It was time to face the monster, look him in the eye. Who was I kidding? Probably sensing my discomfort, Chetan took me under his wing and helped me set up my blog. “That wasn’t too hard “, I thought. With newly gained confidence, I figured I would tinker with my blog that night, and make it look awesome. Get comfortable with the “dashboard”, you know. And of course, something went wrong. Surprise, surprise.

Richa's blog from the blogging workshop

This is what my blog finally looked like.

The next morning, I confessed my sins and asked for help. “(sh)it happens! You’ll figure it out “, everybody encouraged me. That afternoon, on popular demand, Sumit, a fellow participant, and a full-time blogger, shared his vast knowledge of the technical aspects of blogging. Words flew thick and fast - SEO, analytics, google rankings, dashboard, etc etc. This was the heart of the beast. My head was spinning! What was I, a technophobiosaurus, doing here?? With my sloth for a laptop? Could it be any slower?? “How am I going to do this?!”

Such was the generosity of spirit and helpfulness, that everybody came forward to put me at ease. We had formed a buddy system the day before and committed our goals to the whole group. I’d like to revise my goals please, if I may?! The group encouraged me to keep working at it and helped me with my blog. “I can do this”.

The last day, everything finally co-operated and I presented my blog to the group. It wasn’t half bad. Nothing was where it was supposed to be, but it looked pretty darned good! I had crossed a barrier.

Did the retreat do everything it promised? Hell, yes! Have I overcome all my fears? No. But I can, with a little help, which this loving and supportive group promises. Someday soon, this dinosaur will be a dinosaur no more.

About the contributor : Ruchi Chauhan is the mother of two and lives in the Delhi NCR. She attended the Himalayan Blogging and Podcasting Retreat in the Kumaon Himalayas in April 2017. For upcoming Blogging events, please visit .

Self publishing can be a first choice



“The difference between self publishing and traditional publishing “ a well-known author once told me “is the difference between masturbating and making love to someone.”

That’s a bad metaphor being used to make the wrong point. In some circles, it is fashionable to look down at our noses at self-publishing. Just like it is fashionable to look down our noses at fifty shades of grey. But as you, gentle writer, decide to publish your book, here are a few things to keep in mind about self-publishing.

1. It destroys a bottleneck. You now have a choice.

Once upon a time, an author had no option but to go stand at the door of a publisher and grovel. The publisher was god – sometimes benign, but to many, seemingly heartless. But even publishing professionals are human.  I know many people from the dark side & I don’t think they are heartless. It is just the nature of the industry which makes them seem that way.

But I digress. It felt like a whimm on which the publisher rejects your precious manuscript or consigns it to the slush pile. is on the whim the publisher would turn his back on you. That happened to a no-name author called Stephen King. His first novel “Carrie” was rejected by 30 publishers. Back then he had no option so he stuck it out and eventually found a publisher. In today’s day he would have had an option.

Erika Leonard (E.L. James) wrote “Fifty Shades of Grey” and self-published it through a small Australian company, which released it on eBook and print-on demand. But as her fan base lusted for more (pun intended) the rights were acquired by Vintage Books. Now the sales for the trilogy top 70 million worldwide. Laugh at that

2. Statistically, self-published authors make less money

Yes, it’s true. Only 8% of self pubished authors make more than 5000 dollars on their self-published books. As opposed to 20% of traditional publishers. But at least it gives you the option to put your book out there, and give it a chance to find its readers. And maybe glory. Much better than the option of keeping your manuscript under your pillow and weeping over it every night.

3. With the Kindle, everything has changed.

Adam Croft, an outrageously successful mystery writer from the UK, never stood in the line outside the publisher’s door. He published his first book directly on Kindle, and is today on his 8th novel with sales of over 500,000 copies. He talks about how he paid off his mortgage in just 20 weeks, thanks to kindle. The secret to that is the next point.

4. 70% is better than 10%

When you publish with a traditional publisher, you are paying for their staff, their office rent, their air-conditioning, their coffee machine and their alleged expertise. Most importantly, you pay for their distribution muscle. But with the online medium, all that can be dispensed with. That is the reason why kindle and most other self-publishing platforms happily give you a 70% royalty, while the traditional publisher will haggle over 8% or 10%.

So what is the moral of that story?

Your chances of making it big are a little higher in a traditional Publishing set-up, but many fantastic authors self-publish now, and are outrageously successful as well. Anyone who rules out self-publishing is quite behind the times.

Self publishing can free the writer from many constraints. However, that cannot mean anything less than your best should be put out there. There is value to editorial feedback. Refining and reworking a story is often what makes a book shine, and traditional publishers hold their authors to a higher standard. The worst thing a writer can do is to put something half-baked out there. Self-publishing leaves you that option, and you have to watch out for it.

If you do self publish, there is also a decent chance that you may go on to be picked up by the bigger publishers. You can then turn them down and get some pleasure out of that.

Note : in a developing country like India where Kindle penetration is still rather low, the above may not apply as much, but there is still a decent case for self-publishing, and it is only getting stronger as kindle apps catch on. The self-publishing of print books has also been used by big names like Amish Tripathi before they became big names.