Please welcome my fellow North Dakota author, J.M. Stebbins. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your background?
I grew up on a small farm, outside of Bowman, North Dakota. I began reading John Grisham books in 5th grade, and decided I wanted to become a lawyer. I was a political science major in college, and became very active in the Democratic Party. After law school, I began working at a small law firm in Bismarck, North Dakota, and later started my own law firm with a partner. I predominantly practiced in the areas of family law, criminal defense, and civil litigation, for almost ten years. Admittedly, I was a workaholic, but I loved what I did. In 2018, after a grueling and prolonged onset, including a 48-hour stint in the psychiatric ward where I was misdiagnosed, I was diagnosed with autoimmune encephalitis (AE). AE is a rare and can be fatal brain illness wherein the patient’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy brain cells. I recovered from the disease in near isolation for over a year. It blew my life to smithereens, and it took away my career as a lawyer. But, it also opened up some doors for me as a writer and motivational speaker. I am proudly in remission from AE, and am excited about where life takes me next. I am a mother of three. I have an 8-year old girl, a 9-month old girl, and a 5-year old boy, who is a middle child, just like me. My husband of twelve years, Sean, is my love, friend, and supporter. My mom is my confidant.
How do you make time to write?
It is my preference to write in the morning, but my preference isn’t always conducive to my reality. I began writing my first (and probably only) book, the day after my one-year anniversary date of having a grand mal seizure, which was the grand finale of my AE diagnosis. When I began, I woke up early, and peacefully wrote in my home office in the morning. Months later, when my kids went to school, I wrote a lot during the day. My book was mostly finished by March, 2020, when the world went into lock-down for Covid-19. Which was great, because Covid forced my family to be in our home 24/7, and I had a miracle baby in April. Since March, 2020, I write on the weekends, or during any hour or two I can muster with all the chaos in the house!
Do you believe in writer’s block?
If you write novels, I’m sure writer’s block is a true thing. My book is a memoir. It’s a reflection on my life leading up to AE, the horror story of the onset, and the daunting challenges I faced after. It’s the no holds barred story of who I was when the disease hit and who I became after. I’m a humorous storyteller by nature, and I’m really long winded. I have a gift to make short stories long. Thus, writer’s block hasn’t been a challenge for me. I struggled a bit with how I would end the book, but as my surprise pregnancy unfolded, the ending just came to me. It was at about the same time that I met my friend, Clay, for lunch and began to ask him questions about writing a book (I started my venture completely in the dark). He asked me about word count and we realized that the beginning of my book alone, was about three books. The problem for me in my writing is always cutting, and never adding.
Tell us a bit about the genre you write and why you love it.
My rare and devastating illness prompted me to write a book. I hadn’t given much thought to it before. I don’t have the imagination to write fiction, as I know anything I would attempt would sound an awful lot like Harry Potter. And, I never believed I had enough of a story to write some type of biography, until I woke up from amnesia and learned about my illness. I loved writing this memoir, because it allowed me to put my life down on paper. It was therapy for me when I needed it the most. It gave me time to self-reflect and heal. I want this book to help spread awareness about AE, so others don’t suffer my same fate. I want to share my interesting story with a wide audience. I want to be proud of this book, and make it something that my children are proud of when they grow up and read it. My friend, Tony, told me that writing a book is a college education in and of itself, and I believe he’s correct. I loved this project, but it also frustrated me. Writing about my life in this way made me very emotional. Every time I read or edit it, I go back through hell. It’s also a challenge to literally, write a book! Putting together a story that’s sensical, enjoyable, informative, emotional, scary, true, and (hopefully) a page turner, is one thing, but recalling (looking up) rules of grammar and punctuation, is a real challenge. And then figuring out what to do with it when you’re done writing …
How are you publishing your recent book and why?
I’m goal oriented, and I always have big dreams. Thus, when I began writing, I did set one goal for myself: I wanted the book to be traditionally published. I’d like to stick to that goal as long as I can. But, the world seems to live and die by Amazon, so I could always self-publish through there, and would still be proud of my accomplishment. I’m currently working on finding a publisher.
Are you an Introvert or Extrovert? How does this affect your work?
I am a very extroverted introvert. I’m a people person, and I’m very outgoing. I love to be in the center of groups, I love having a vast network of friends, and I love to tell stories. However, I’m also very introspective, especially since my illness. I like to have time to myself to contemplate my life and the world around me. I like time to write, whether it’s a blog or in my various journals. And, I love quiet time to read books. Being introspective helped me pen my story, but I had to exercise a lot of self-restraint to not show anyone the project until it was “complete.”
What is your favorite motivational phrase?
The “old” me would have said:Do it one way, the right way, and do it that way every single time. The “new” me would say Julian of Norwich’s: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Writing this book has forced me to reconcile my achievements with my past mistakes. My intense and driven personality has served me well, but it has also been destructive. I’m learning to temper myself by putting these two quotes together, which will be a lifelong process.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
The same advice that I often heard from my old senior partner, David, who wrote a great novel. If you want to write, you must write. Just start writing! He also recommended Stephen King’s book, “On Writing,” which I read during my recovery and really enjoyed. Overall, I took on this book in my own way, and then asked for advice and help later. I don’t regret that.
Where can readers find you on the World Wide Web?
In October, 2019, I founded JM Stebbins, LLC, as a place to share my story through my speaking and writing. My website – jmstebbins.com – has all of my contact information, stories about me, news and events, my blog, and my AE podcast, Brain Fever. You can download Brain Fever where you subscribe to podcasts.
You can also follow me on Facebook @JM Stebbins; on Twitter @jmstebbs; on Insta @jmstebbs84, and on LinkedIn @Jackie Stebbins.
Do you have an excerpt you’d like to share with us?
May 15, 2018. Psychiatric Ward, Sanford Hospital, Bismarck, North Dakota. ~ I called Sean. Sean said he would call him and ask him to come and visit me. I need a priest.
He’s on his way now. I’m sitting here waiting for him. I feel like I’m in a closet. There are shelves and clutter around me. Everything before me is dim, and everything swirls around me. I keep getting confused. I never really know where I am at.
He’s here. I meet him at the door. I know that I look like a mess. I’m in shorts and a t-shirt. Or wait, I’m in t-shirts and leggings. I don’t even know what I’m wearing. I’m bawling all over him. He’s frightened of me. I can see it in his face. Is he afraid of me because I’m in here? Maybe he’s embarrassed of me. I hoped he would understand.
We talk for a while and then he asks me if I want him to hear my confession. I don’t even believe in confession. Yes, yes, I desperately want to confess my sins. I cannot say the prayers with him, I can hardly even follow along, but I can tell him what I’ve done wrong. I can tell him that it’s all my fault. I did this to myself. I’m here because of me. I finally did it. I overdid it so much that I harmed my mind. It was being a lawyer. I let go of all my priorities. I look like this and sound like this, because of what I have done.
I cannot say the final prayer after I confess my sins, but that’s okay, he can do it while I sit here and cry.
~The Lawyer Who Wasn’t Crazy, by Jackie M. Stebbins. Copyright © Jackie M. Stebbins 2020.