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The Wonder of Words on a Page

For almost as long as I have been alive, I have wanted to be a writer. But no one could have told me that my first book would be a gluten-free food memoir. As a pre-pubescent, I poured out my heart in a teddy bear journal. Later, I dreamed fictional worlds, wandered through words on the page, and wrote, and wrote, and wrote.

But in adolescence I suffered sometimes debilitating fatigue. For years, I couldn’t bring my writing to completion; it’s hard to write on days when your brain feels more fogged than San Francisco Bay in the rain. As I grew older, an outline for a novel languished for years in a drawer.

Then I was diagnosed with celiac disease, and started writing about living gluten-free, writing with fervour. It felt like the most urgent force. I started a website to share my stories. If I had been prevented from pursuing my biggest passion by the brain fog induced by eating gluten, then I wanted to show other people how to find their way, through food. Writing is normally a solitary process. But a website is a chance to publish daily. You finish a piece and publish instantly, and the feedback is just as immediate. And the responses to the pieces I wrote about discovering teff (a gluten-free grain) or gluten-free flours or the love of my life through food? Astounding. I had found my community.

The book deal was even better than the imagining. But it came with a shock. I had four months to write an entire manuscript. My publisher wanted to promote the book to coincide with National Celiac Awareness Month in October. They needed it, pronto.

Before I was diagnosed with celiac, I never would have made it. But with the energy of good health and the experience of publishing on the Internet nearly every day for a year, I had the chops. So I wrote the manuscript – part memoir, part cookbook, with stories of strolls through farmers’ markets, the bad food of my childhood and falling in love with a chef – in 120 days. I even sent it in a day early.

My editor then whittled the 500-page behemoth into 350 pages in nine days. Nine days! She gave me two weeks to polish it. All I could do was work. And as always in a rush, not all went smoothly. My computer froze up the day I was meant to print up the last version of the manuscript. I went through 22 slightly different versions of lemon olive oil cookies before picking the recipe that would go to print. There were a dozen other little exigencies. But they didn’t stop me, I just kept writing.

By the time you are reading this column in Allergic Living, I will be holding my book in my hands. Since I was a child, I have wanted to hold a book of my own making. Through the doing – not the longing – I became the writer I had wanted to be. This gluten-free life turns out to be one of abundance, in which I never feel deprived. At times, I am instead overwhelmed by how much arrives. When you are doing what you love, and you are doing it to help other people, magic just happens.

Shauna James Ahern’s first book, Gluten-Free Girl: How I Found the Food That Loves Me Back … And How You Can Too, is published by John Wiley & Sons. Shauna James Ahern’s and Daniel Ahern’s first cookbook is Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef, published by John Wiley & Sons. Their blog is Glutenfreegirl.com.

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