It’s been a few weeks since I’ve started my experiment with Substack, and already I’ve learned a bunch.
First, that it is a LOT of work to keep up with twice-a-week posts. I’m pretty pleased with myself when I manage to maintain the Wednesday / Sunday 7pm schedule I’ve created for myself; but last week at work I was pulled fully into a new project AND we had a new business pitch AND I wanted to attend an important dinner for a friend.
At some point, it became clear that a Wednesday post wasn’t going to happen, so I sight my sights on Thursday—and almost bit Per’s head off when he tried to show me a funny video at 6:58 pm because DIDN’T HE UNDERSTAND that I was on a deadline and needed to focus??
He (wisely) left the room.
I posted at 7:01 pm and couldn’t decide if I was more frustrated that I was late—or frustrated that I was so frustrated that I was late. After all, I was only ONE MINUTE late when I hit send. And then…nothing happened.
Substack, unlike my Facebook group, isn’t a support community; it’s a publishing platform. People either read, or they don’t. A few will “like” it with a heart or leave a comment, but most won’t—or will do so anonymously. One woman writes me on LinkedIn to tell me she’s unsubscribed—“it’s not you, it’s me,” she says. She’s honest about the fact that she had been hoping I would have a miracle cure for her wife. I understand, but also find myself curious about who else is disappointed.
Mostly, I feel like I’m writing without a feedback loop, hoping that somehow I get the right message to the right person in the right moment (to borrow some traditional media terms).
So, I keep writing, even if it’s mostly because I’ve made a commitment to an audience as a means of keeping a commitment to myself. Without the immediate validation, the process feels almost private—and therefore, probably a little safer.
Posting on TikTok, on the other hand, is terrifying.
We futz with the first video, the one that made me laugh out loud in the elevator at Northwestern, for weeks. It’s a video of my first scan, showing a cross-section of my body, moving from pelvis upward—and when the image reaches my liver, suddenly a new shade explodes to fill the circumference of my ribcage. It’s only shocking if you recognize the explosion for what it is: tumor. We try a bunch of ways to make that obvious—starting with a different video, adding words, layering on a green-screen image of me shaking my head and wincing, then cutting the starter video. Somewhere along the line we shift from editing in TikTok itself to a different app, Capcut.
We try posting it without tags, a controversial method we feel confident enough to try after watching one “How to use tags on TikTok” video. Not much happens.
We edit a second video, which more closely mirrors the #cancerjourney videos people post, sharing the arc of their own stories in text over photos or video footage—diagnosed, treatment details, healthy again. When I tell Per I want to tell my own story to the lyrics of Lizzo’s “About Damn Time,” he is skeptical. But it felt like my song from the very first time that I heard it: “I’m not the girl I was or used to be… bitch, I might be better!” I could not be dissuaded.
So, one day, we set up the ring light and spend half an hour recording me dancing. At the start, it is awkward: I keep stepping or pointing out of frame, and when Per tries to correct me, I lose my focus and get frustrated. But eventually, we get into the groove—Per puts tape marks on the floor to mark the framing and grows more comfortable directing. Once he starts asking me to dance in and out of frame so he’ll be able to edit the best cuts together, I begin to relax knowing that he can edit out the most ridiculous parts. As the familiar lyrics play, the script of my own story start forming in my head, and by the last few takes, I’m dancing like I mean it, safe in the security of future editing.
In the end, Per decides to use a single cut. It makes me cringe. We post it anyway.
Twenty-four hours later, it has 50K views. By the next day, it has 75K.
By then, I’m deep into pitch prep, and Per starts texting me updates and screen shots of the comments, many of which come from other cancer patients; but most of which do not. I thought my story would be the draw; instead, it seems to be my joy. While not my intent, I’m happy it’s what people seem to see.
Four days later, my therapist is astounded to hear that the view count is approaching 100K.
As we talk, I realize why the first video didn’t take off: it was too safe. The second made me feel as if I had squeezed my eyes shut and flung it out into the world.
The venture into the unknown territory of TikTok echoes a stretch into a new project at work: exciting and closely connected with what I’ve come to believe is my purpose. And yet, I’m deeply uncomfortable moving away from what is familiar and what I know how to do. I’m clumsy and frustrated when I make mistakes—so I find myself clinging to what I’ve known.
But I’m back to working too many hours, I’m tired, and eventually my body tells me what I’ve been trying to ignore: it’s not sustainable.
Making a correction, however, requires giving up control.
I think back to the TikTok video, and as I do, the same visual comes back to me: eyes closed, flinging my content into the world, no idea what will happen.
When I share this with my therapist, her eyes widen. “You’re throwing the bowl!”
I have no idea what she’s talking about.
She explains it is a legend of Buddha—after giving up all earthly possessions, the one thing he kept was a bowl in which he kept his food—until finally he throws it away in an act of renunciation, giving up all control.
I hear the voice in my head, laughingly telling me, “Throw the bowl, Gina!”
Immediately, I recognize it’s going to be a new mantra.
“My future will find me,” I have said, and I still believe it. But I am coming to realize I also need to be ready to receive. And when I find myself clinging to my past with both hands—too tightly to be able to accept—I’ll know what to tell myself:
“Gina, throw the bowl.”