Staying Afloat By Sharing Stories

Author Dotty Doherty with a copy of her book, Buoyant: What Held Us Up When Our Bodies Let Us Down, published by New Bay Books. Photo by Jonathan Doherty.

By Keri Luise    

Naturalist, biology and environmental science teacher, journalist, birder, nature photographer. Annapolitan Dotty Holcomb Doherty, 64, has held many titles, and now she can add published author to her list.

         Doherty’s book, Buoyant: What Held Us Up When Our Bodies Let Us Down, was released by New Bay Books publishing house on October 1.

         It’s a book Doherty says she had been working on for 13 years, when her friend Janet asked her to share her story. Janet had adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare form of cancer that caused disfigurement in her face, and told Doherty that she didn’t want to be forgotten “and she wanted her journey to maybe help somebody else who was facing this kind of horrific cancer.”

         As Doherty worked on writing Janet’s story, she says she “always had this feeling that the reader was outside looking in, not that they were kind of part of the story.” After her own diagnosis, with Multiple Sclerosis in 2002, Doherty began to work her own journey into the book.

         “[Janet’s] illness was so visible, she literally wore it on her face,” Doherty says. “My MS was very hidden—you looked at me and I’m very athletic … and yet here I was, exhausted, couldn’t get off the couch, and so I started writing our story.”

The fatigue that comes with the illness was a surprise to her. “The fatigue was something I had never encountered before and I had quit (teaching) a year after I was diagnosed,” Doherty. “And I truly floundered for quite a while and then I just started writing.”

Doherty continued to write and rewrite, trying different approaches for her book over the years—she attended workshops on fiction writing which helped her to develop a plot, scenes and characters. “It was kind of this mix of narrative nonfiction and memoir,” Doherty says. “Janet became her own character, I was my own character and it blended into the story.”

She wrote a reflection for Bay Weekly, where she caught the eye of then-editor Sandra Olivetti Martin. “It was really Sandra who encouraged me to start writing, she is an amazing editor who didn’t just reject a story, she would say ‘here’s how you should start the first sentence, go’” Doherty says. “And I wrote for her for a decade, and what a gift that was.”

When Doherty finished her book in 2019 and looked for someone to publish it, she struggled to find the perfect publishing home. When Doherty learned about Martin’s New Bay Books publishing house she said “the thought of being back with Sandra, working with her again, would be a dream.”

“I love Dotty’s devotion to her work and to the inner voice that guided her,” Martin says. “I love her persistent determination … I love her attention to domestic detail, the hows of these two women living through the challenges of their very lives that came to them unbidden.”

Martin took the manuscript in February and Doherty, Martin and artist and designer Suzanne Shelden of Shelden Studios took off on an editing journey making everything the best it could be.

“The manuscript was in very good shape, essentially the book as it is now,” Martin says. “Nonetheless, we spent weeks fine-tuning the flow of sentences and more weeks later achieving ideal clarity, correctness and consistency.”

Doherty is also a nature photographer. She received her first digital camera as a gift from her husband’s family in 2013 and took off photographing birds, wildflowers and more. A photo she took graces the cover of her book.

“[Nature photography] and writing have kind of taken over my life which is really exciting and so it’s lovely to have my photo as part of the cover of the book, it makes it really pull together,” Doherty says.

Doherty hopes her book helps readers see what’s beyond a person’s outward persona and always recognize who they are on the inside even if they change on the outside.

“You still can connect with that person that you’ve always known, always loved,” Doherty says. “Friends sometimes don’t know what to say, don’t know what to do when a friend becomes chronically ill…and they stop showing up and I think the important thing to remember is keep showing up…because that same person’s inside there.”

Find Buoyant as well as other Chesapeake authors’ works at