Diabetes: “Any Bit Better Counts”

by Elizabeth Snouffer on 11/22/2011

"Life with diabetes can't be Perfect. Make it Better."

When I got an email from Random House asking me if I would like to review a new book about diabetes, my first thought was, “probably not.” I’m not a big fan of how to books for diabetes.

But this was different.  I read Chuck Eichten’s book in one day and it was better than I thought it would be.  In fact, it was a whole lot BETTER than most books on diabetes I’ve read.

With his inspirational book, The Book Of Better, Chuck Eichten, Creative Director for Nike Inc tells us not to GIVE UP on life with diabetes for a whole bunch of great reasons, and well, I LOVE that.   How does he do it?

Eichten points out that what is most wrong about diabetes care today is WHAT patients are told they have to do to live with diabetes and HOW patients digest this information.  The result?   What we get is illogical thinking, misguided medical information, preposterous barriers, and head-in-the-sand humiliation but Eichner doesn’t moan, he reveals his observations with a bit of stylistic cheek.  I laughed out loud a lot.  You will too.

Some of Eichten’s material says things we have all thought or shouted like, “Diabetes is a temperamental, unpredictable, impolite beast,” admitting that the insulin pump is the only diabetes leash he has ever had.  Sometimes he confesses that he might sound a bit “blasphemous” when he tells us that  “Bad Thing No. 1” is certainly The Cure, but recommends we stop waiting for the cure that up to this point does not exist and instead, try to live better lives with our illness.  Eichten always moves beyond the “badness” of diabetes and encourages patients to deal squarely with the “beast” by taking control.  He offers tips, facts and threads his own experiences throughout each chapter with excerpts he calls “Learn from the Idiot.”

Eichten was kind enough to answer a few questions I was curious about and I was delighted he wrote me back.  After all, it’s pretty clear I’m a fan:

Before you sat down to write The Book of Better, did you consider all that had been written about diabetes before?

Well, like you Elizabeth, I’ve had diabetes for a long time. Over 30 years. And I’ve read a lot about it. A lot of what is available is fairly technical, with lots of detailed instructions. Of course that’s really good information that we need. I really enjoy learning about how diabetes works.

But diabetes literature always seems to kick things off with the long list of terrible outcomes, or the horrifying statistics of the condition. I never really related to that approach—that I was mere moments away from becoming dead and blind. Fear can certainly motivate people, and I’m sure it had some effect on me, but I wanted to create something that was more inspiring, and more fun and not so serious. Too much seriousness about anything is not healthy.

But as I said, I really wanted to do something completely different, try an approach to getting Better that had never really been tried before. Not to replace the other literature, but maybe as an introduction to diabetes, or maybe bit of relief. I wanted to throw together words and drawings and oversized type and unscientific charts and graphs and see if it could help me make a point. Sometimes that’s what it takes to get people to HEAR something they think they’ve already heard a million times before. You know, sing when they expect you to shout, laugh when they expect you to whine.

And stylistically I think it plays to my strengths. My writing style is not very conventional. Some would call it the “Grammatically Tortured Style,” that I never unlearned in the third grade. So I’m saying that is one of my “strengths.”

Was writing it harder than you thought it would be? Easier?

Oh, it was WAY harder. I did every page over maybe 30 times. I exaggerate. Maybe it was 22 times. Copy, illustration, design, line weight, font size, font weight, placement—it was endless.

The great thing about it was that my Canadian publisher, HarperCollins Canada, and Random House in the U.S., both agreed to let me write AND design the entire book. They were incredibly supportive the entire time. They never suggested that I let someone else do one part or another. So I could create it exactly the way I wanted it to look and feel. I was thrilled about that.

But when I first signed a contract to do the book, the publisher asked me how long it would take me to complete it. Of course I didn’t know anything about writing, designing and illustrating a book. So I said, “Um, I don’t know, uh, six months?” I thought maybe if I said something too long that they would laugh and tell me they had changed their minds. So after 5 months I called my editor and said, “Um, I think I’m gonna need a little more time.” They were great. They said, “Fine. Just make sure it’s REALLY good when it’s done.” Just kidding. They didn’t really say that last part. I’m sure they were thinking it.

I couldn’t help but feel that you should go on tour and speak about the material in the book. I would buy a ticket. Will you?

Hey, that’s really nice of you to say, Elizabeth. I know people who have to work with me every day and they probably wouldn’t listen to me if they weren’t getting paid to do it.

There are a few tour options out there. I’m sure I will hit the road at some point to talk about Better. It’s a great topic, really, because everyone already understands a lot of what I’m talking about. I’m not re-inventing diabetes treatment. I’m really just talking about it in a different way that might help some people make more sense of the ridiculousness of our situation.

What’s great about speaking in front of people is that you can immediately tell if you’ve struck a nerve, or if you’re connecting with them. In the book I try to be honest about everything I talk about. I’ll admit, for example, that something might be hard, but I also say that doesn’t matter. You have to do hard things if you want things to be BETTER. And I think audiences appreciate that, I really do. We all want the truth. Someone might not jump on your bandwagon, but they will appreciate that you’re giving them the straight shit.

Naturally, a live audience will also let you know if you’re NOT connecting. Although embarrassing, it’s invaluable feedback that you need to try a different way of capturing their attention.

It makes sense that you work as a Creative Director at Nike when I look at the book graphically. If I am on to something here – can you discuss?

I’ve learned a lot working with the creative people at Nike. I’m a graphic designer by trade, but I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of different kinds of things at Nike—logo design and retail design and events and packaging and writing and exhibits and Olympic athlete product. A lot of storytelling. Over the years Nike has done a wonderful job of inspiring people. They’ve recog­nized that inspiration is what motivates people to DO something, or do something BETTER. Not coersion, not fear, not trickery, not BS, but inspiration. And inspiration can take many different forms, and inspiration is different for different people. The big challenge is discovering what it is that moves someone.

And funny thing is, the people who are CREATING the work feel Better about what they do when they are doing work that they believe to be honest and inspiring. It’s kind of a cool loop—people want to EXPERIENCE honest inspiration, and people want to CREATE and SHARE honest inspiration.

I think those are the most key questions for me. I would love to know what year you were diagnosed, if you want to share.

I was diagnosed in 1975. I was 13. The family was on vacation in San Diego, at the beach. Because we were on vacation, we were allowed to have soda pop. I was drinking it constantly. I suppose it hurried along the inevitable.

Although naturally I hated it at the time, I had the opportunity to spend a few days learning about diabetes at Children’s Hospi­tal in Los Angeles. Even way back then, the team there did a fabulous job of educating me about the whys and hows of my new friend. They wouldn’t just tell me what to do, they explained what was happening. So they never forced some particular diabetes management style, or forbid me to eat anything, they just taught me how to live with it and how to make good decisions.

I didn’t always make good decisions, but that understanding has helped me my entire life.

Words to live by.  Thank you, Chuck. Your book was such a positive experience for me.  I hope anyone out there who reads it, will agree.

The Book of Better: Life with Diabetes Can’t Be Perfect. Make It Better. Chuck Eichten [Paperback] Three Rivers Press; Original edition (November 1, 2011)

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