Thursday, August 17, 2023

Q&A with Jennifer Cramer-Miller


Photo by Belén Fleming, Belu Photography.



Jennifer Cramer-Miller is the author of the new memoir Incurable Optimist: Living with Illness and Chronic Hope. She lives in the Minneapolis area.


Q: What inspired you to write your memoir, and how long did it take to complete it?


A: Three people inspired me to bring this memoir to life. First, my daughter Liza. I remember taking her in as a teenager, and thinking, what if a wayward bus toppled me and she never knew what a miracle her life is (given my health history).


That thought sparked the idea. I wanted to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard. Then, peculiar as it sounds, a conversation between Madonna and Ellen fanned the flames. Apparently, Madonna had encouraged Ellen to share her story before she came out, and stressed that if she didn't, it would be lost.


My story is quite different (I’m far from a famous comedian/talk show host) but I believe we all have stories with a unique perspective. So, I tapped into old journals and letters, conjured up memories, and tackled this memoir project. All in all, it took about eight years.


Now, my daughter will always have this book to remind her how lucky we are to be in this life together. My daughter-Madonna-Ellen-inspired mission has resulted in Incurable Optimist: Living with Illness and Chronic Hope.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title resulted from a lot of back and forth between me and my publisher, Brooke Warner of She Writes Press. I give the She Writes Press team a lot of credit for making sure the title was just right. I had a lot of other titles in mind (Find Some Joy, Dammit!, Happy to be Here, Unfailing, Finding the Bright Side.) But their expert opinions let me know these were off the mark.


Then I landed on Incurable Hope. But Brooke suggested Incurable Optimist, and I knew it was a bullseye. She said, “It’s not what you feel, it’s what you are. You have an incurable illness and your very positive and full of optimism. It really captures your story.” I loved it.


The subtitle was another back and forth and back and forth. I felt chronic hope was an important element that encapsulates my story, so this seemed perfect for the subtitle.

Q: The author Julie Burton called the book a “raw, heartfelt, and transformational read for anyone needing levity in the face of adversity.” What do you think of that description, and what do you see as the role of humor in the book?


A: I loved that Julie Burton highlighted the contrast of adversity and levity. Because after I was diagnosed with an incurable kidney disease and faced a difficult road ahead, obviously, I felt devastated. But as I moved forward, I grabbed hold of the things I still had. And humor was so important.


I remember going to a movie theater with my mom and brother during a very uncertain time. (I’m not sure, but I think the movie was A Fish Called Wanda.) My legs ached, and I propped them up on the seat in front of me. The movie was silly, and I soaked it up. I realized; I can still laugh! Nobody can take that from me.


It became so clear that life is a mix of beauty and bummers, and heartbreak and humor co-exist. I learned to accept the dichotomy and hold on to the hilarity that kept us afloat. So, I wanted to weave humor throughout the book as in life. (That’s why it also delighted me that Kirkus Reviews called Incurable Optimist “unfailingly entertaining.”)


Q: What do you hope readers take away from your story?


A: In the beginning of Incurable Optimist, after my diagnosis, I wrote that I’d crossed a line to the wrong side of life. As the story continues, decades of life lessons later, I came to realize there is no line. Everyone faces something.


Again, life is a mix of beauty and bummers, every day, for all of us. Because hardship is an equal opportunity employer, we all manage uncertainty. So, our task is this—how do we let go of the life we’ve planned, accept the one we have, and find meaning and joy? This is a universal part of being a human.


I hope this story inspires readers to deepen their compassion for themselves and others. There’s tremendous power in people helping people. When we embrace that we’re in this together, we sometimes realize the sorrows that try to pull us apart can unite us in hope and love.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: At the end of Incurable Optimist, I tell the story of Brian Glennon, a stay-at-home dad who decided one day, out of the goodness of his heart, to donate his kidney to a stranger. His good deed set off a chain of kidney transplants and helped so many people.


I’m fascinated by the domino effect of kindness and the intersection of different lives. My next book centers on this theme in the form of fiction.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I am the board chair for the Minnesota National Kidney Foundation, an ambassador for Donate Life, and an advocate for donor registration awareness and education. Checking a box at the DMV galvanizes the power of yes.


So, if you’d like more information about becoming a registered donor, please visit And if it feels like the right decision, simply register online or at your local DMV. If you’re curious about living donation, visit As just one voice in the transplant community, I am so grateful for the power of yes. Thank you.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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