Last year, I had the honor of copyediting and proofreading David’s powerful memoir, and I eagerly await its imminent publication (Mascot Books). To whet your appetite, too, I asked David to share his experience of writing his book, and this post is the first of a two-parter. The second part will be published when the book is available.
About the Book
After hitting his head during a kung fu play-fight and suffering a grand mal seizure, David discovered he had an inoperable brain tumor and was told he had 5 to 7 years left to live. That was 9 years ago.
Having defied the survival odds, David has written a memoir, Thank You Kung Fu—an unwaveringly honest, moving, and oftentimes funny account of his search for the meaning of life and the answer to why he had cancer. This quest ended David’s first marriage, but it also opened unexpected pathways that ultimately led to the discovery of inner peace and new purpose.
First, by way of an additional introduction, can you tell us your favorite “book with spine"?
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. That might seem like a strange answer, but to me, he represents the creativity I see as such an important aspect of my life. If I were in a spot where I was not able to create, my body would start to immediately deteriorate. Just ask my wife!
I actually met Pressfield for breakfast one morning and was enamored with every move he made (such as ordering his meal with no salt, then burying his meal with salt when it arrived). He is an enigma with in-depth knowledge of writing on serious and lengthy topics like the history of war tactics, murder mysteries, or inspiring creativity while not giving a shit about what people think. He has become an authority (not an expert—a distinction I talk about in my own book) on sharing inspiring stories with anyone who chooses to read any of his work. And because of who he is, what he represents, and how much he has affected me, I gladly picked up our breakfast tab.
Many of the stories you tell in Thank You Kung Fu are harrowing to read, and they must have been harrowing to write. How did you deal with reopening old wounds? Do you have any advice for others who want to write about difficult life experiences?
It took me quite a while to trust that the only thing that moves any audience is vulnerability. I know I have written things in this book that will mocked by counselors, doctors, pastors, naturopaths, family members, and so on … and it was really hard to type out those stories. You can ask my wife (my second wife, who’ll you’ll meet if you read the book) about the times I would come home covered in tears over what I remembered or recorded that day. Telling your story is tough, but honestly, it’s worth it.
For future writers, I would say to begin with writing EVERYTHING. Your shaky tears and your shocking fears will blow you away, but THOSE writings are the true source of great stories. And when you come back to it a day or two later, your gut will tell you which parts are and aren’t needed. I imagine you will also have stories you don’t want to tell (I had many). But because of the power of expressing vulnerability, you have to tell them.
The feeling of releasing those stories to the public is scary as shit. In fact, it actually helped me that I have cancer and thinking, These words might be some of the last words I write, so I made sure they were accurate and true.
One of the biggest challenges for any storyteller is not what story to tell but how to tell it. How did the structure of your story come about? Were there some episodes in your experience you decided to omit, and why?
To my benefit, the structure of my story was pretty simple because I had three massive events happen in a row: cancer, divorce, and random pregnancy. And three’s a solid number, so I figured I should get this book printed before the fourth event shows up (actually it’s already happening with my new nonprofit for encouraging cancer survivors through my new nonprofit, Bent Not Broken: bentnotbroken.org).
I had multiple issues with length. Originally, my book was more than 125,000 words long, and I loved every single one of those words, so it was extremely difficult to cut them out of the manuscript. So, yeah, there were stories I hated to leave out. I left out the crazy moments from shooting the movie Election [in which David had a speaking role], like when I took Reese Witherspoon on a “date” and we slow danced at a bar after filming was done. And I skipped the story about attending a random concert in a janky restaurant with one of my favorite musicians of all time, Alfie Jurvanen (of Bahamas). At that time he had recently won the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy Award, and his agent suggested playing a show on his way back to Canada. Considering it was a late booking with zero promotion, nobody was at the show. I asked him out for a drink and, strangely enough, he was the first person I explained my divorce situation to in the back of a gritty bar.
There was another life-changing moment I had to omit, which was when I shared a dinner with my film team in Uganda. We met up with another organization who had just come across a scared young boy who had to piggy-back his dead younger brother across the extremely dangerous Congolese border. After dinner, when everyone was leaving, I called out his name and ran towards him. I couldn’t help but squeeze him so tight in the middle of a busy road. When I was packing up my things to go home, I couldn’t stand the fact that I had all of these “expensive and fancy” clothes, so I put them all in a big plastic bag and dropped them off where he was staying. I traveled home with an empty bag but with a heart full of love for him. So many of these unpublished stories have so much heartache, pain, fear, and love. But they also have too many words, so I had to leave them out.
Why did you want to write a book to convey your life story, rather than, say, a documentary film?
Interesting question. To be honest, a documentary seemed somewhat lifeless when telling my extremely emotional story. Ideally, I wanted people to be able to “press pause” with the book and think about these moments or concepts for themselves. I needed (for myself!) to provide intense explanations for the things I was feeling and felt I couldn’t do that through a film. By writing this book head on, I felt I could challenge and face those fears that have pursued me. Essentially, I wanted (as horrible as it sounds) to relive those years and work my way through the pain it brought, so that’s why I felt a memoir would work better for me. Also, I have been approached by numerous people who say they want to direct the movie for this book, and I am positive they are much better at doing that than I am.
What do you hope the book will achieve for you and do for the reader?
As far as what the book will achieve for me, and I hate to say this, but I have no hopes. I placed my best efforts into writing this book and I am now placing it in God’s hands. I’ll let him figure out what He wants to do with it; whether that leaves me with a New York Times Bestseller or a book that nine people read.
I see this strange balance similar to what I wrote in chapter three of the book, “Fuck Experts,” where I first learned the differences between experts and authorities. Experts want to attract everyone to their schtick, to their “bestseller,” and make as much money as possible. But an authority’s true motives are to complete projects for themselves and whoever else is interested. And history continues to show that by creating with true intent to reveal the honest truth, as authorities do, people are naturally drawn towards the work that is being done. For example, which interaction would you prefer? A person who signs your copy of his best selling book regarding global poverty? Or sitting down and sipping tea with Mother Teresa while listening to her personal stories?
I don’t want to be a best seller; I just want to share my story with you.
Part two of this interview will focus on the challenges of publishing a book with spine. In the meantime, find out more about David, his book, and his life's work at:
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith