Terri Banner Fitzsimmons is the author, motivational speaker, and best-selling author of 4 books. Her biggest passion is helping women achieve their passion for life, to break free of all the doubts they cling to that stop them from recognizing their worth. She didn’t return to school until she was forty, and with the help of the counselors and professors, she could graduate valedictorian in her master’s Program. She went on to get her teaching degree and a certificate in special education training. She had adopted two teenage boys with fetal alcohol syndrome, so she could understand what the students in her classes needed. She resides near Palm Springs, where she continues writing and counseling women. After the Camp Fire in 2018, which took everything from her, she worked in Medford, Oregon, with special needs, until the pandemic.
In this interview, she tells about her book “Phoenix Rising from the Ashes,” a powerful true story of her survival after Camp Fire in 2018. It is her personal journey from victim to thriver. After she learned she had lost everything in the fire, her home, and her identity, she found an inner strength she never knew she had; she had to move forward. She had to survive. Facing numerous obstacles, she forged ahead, realizing that the person she was before the fire was buried in those ashes. She was transformed by tragedy, arising like the true Phoenix, helping other victims, and counseling them to move ahead with their lives.
First things first, how did we develop an interest in writing?
I was born with a vivid imagination! Even before I could read, I would conjure up imaginary playmates who would accompany me on all sorts of adventures. The thrill of seeing stories develop on paper kept me at my desk for many hours until my father discouraged my writing, stating it was too immature.
When did you realize you had a story the world needed to hear?
All my life, I felt like I was living a peripheral life: I was always on the outside, looking in. Being insecure did not stop me from visualizing myself as someone who would shine as a writer. Being in college at the age of 40 offered me the opportunity to tell my story. I started a club called The RASCALS – Returning Adult SClub and Learning Society – to help other older women overcome their insecurities and succeed in school. I began research on Returning Adults, which became my master’s thesis. I gave my lectures and presentations on my work.
What was the writing process like? Did you come up with your title first and build around it, or did the manuscript come first?
The symbol of ‘Phoenix Rising from the Ashes’ inspired my first book. I was the Phoenix, reborn from the fire in Paradise, California. Who I was before the fire was not who I was when I emerged from it. After the fire, I suffered many nightmares from having to escape the town of Paradise on a school bus with children. The sounds of people screaming, the exploding tanks, and seeing the flames in the distance, ready to engulf us haunted me every night. I wrote down my thoughts in a daily journal, and my counselor suggested I turn my journal into a book as it could help other fire victims. So my journal morphed into a manuscript, telling the story of my move to Paradise, my short time living then, and the fire and its aftermath. The title is my constant reminder of who I have become, a strong woman who chose to be a survivor instead of a victim.
What is the message behind your title?
“Stress is not what happens to us, it is our response to what happens, and our response is something we choose.” Everything in our life is based on perception: How we view life determines how we will feel and act. I can define my experience with the fire and its aftermath as a tragedy from which I never will recover, or I can reframe the experience as one which offered me an opportunity to grow stronger; I had to lose everything to gain everything. Who I was before the fire is buried in the ashes.
Can you share 3 takeaways you would like women to take away from your book?
● It is crucial that we reframe our lives to perceive what happened to us in the past did not make us victims. “I had to spend months trying to regain my identity after the fire, replacing my green card, passport, and transcripts.” Reframed: “After the fire, I became resourceful, buying a laptop the next day and getting all the necessary paperwork to get my documents.” “I am a victim.”Reframed: “I am still alive. I am a survivor.”
● “You are not alone.” When tragedy strikes, be it the loss of a loved one, a flood, earthquake, or tornado, there are thousands around the world suffering with you. What makes the difference between a survivor and a victim is how one perceives the tragedy. Tragedies allow us to reach inside ourselves and find the inner strength we never knew we had. For months I kept a map that showed where all the survivors of Paradise had relocated. Red dots signified their destinations. It reinforced the knowledge that there were thousands like me striving to build a new life.
● We are what we choose to be. Our life is based on the choices we make. We can choose to be a victim of circumstance, or we can choose to be a survivor. Before we start bemoaning what happens to us, we need to decide how we are going to react to it.
At any moment during your writing process, did you experience writer’s block? What tips do you have for overcoming it?
Because of my own insecurities, I would stop the writing process altogether! I have perhaps fifteen unfinished articles and manuscripts saved on my computer. I still have my father’s words ringing in my ears “You will never be a writer.” But then, something would trigger my imagination – a golden nugget from a movie or a book, and I would be back at the keyboard, outlining a new project. Of course, there would be times when I was stymied when I couldn’t make the words flow, so I would leave my work alone, sometimes for a few weeks. I used to say that I was waiting for the dust to settle, giving my brain a chance to accommodate new ideas! Now that I am almost finished my new book, I am toying with the idea of revisiting my unfinished manuscripts.
All authors experience writer’s block. The key is not to give up and delete our work. Take a break from writing and let your mind relax.
Take me through the first moment you held your book in your hands; what did that feel like for you?
When I first saw the cover of my book, the vibrant phoenix in the middle, I burst into tears as I held it to my chest. Inside that book were my thoughts, my fears, and my memories. I had overcome a lifetime of insecurity to write a book about who I was. I cherish this memory as it was the impetus for me to continue writing.
What would you say was the most challenging part of your writing process?
Writing requires discipline. I have to set a specific time each day to write.
What key tips do you have for marketing your book and getting it out to the masses?
I am naive about the process of writing. Unfortunately, I spent thousands of dollars with one company that promised me the moon. I had many book signings lined up, and then the Pandemic hit. I never had any results with the company, and I do not have the funds to market my books now. I do have a website, and I write articles where I mention my books.
What audience is your book written for?
Young adults to seniors: It is for anyone who has experienced grief or loss in their lives.
Connect with T.K. Banner Online by visiting her website