Like many people, Andrea Avery grew up with a piano in her home. Intrigued by the instrument sitting in her living room, she started taking lessons at age 7 and soon fell in love with it.
But by age 12, she was diagnosed with something that would change the way she played piano for the rest of her life: rheumatoid arthritis.
Avery, now a high school English teacher in Phoenix, wrote about her experiences with arthritis and her love for piano in her recent memoir “Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano.”
Last month, she took her stories as a writer and pianist to the stage when she took part in two talks at the Tucson Festival of Books. She was part of a panel of memoir authors, and also spoke in a presentation alongside University of Arizona Arthritis Center Director Dr. C. Kent Kwoh about her book.
When Avery was first diagnosed, she didn’t think kids could have arthritis.
Kwoh said many think arthritis only affects older people, but the type of arthritis Avery has can affect people as young as 6 months old.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means the immune system attacks the joints of the body mistakenly, creating inflammation that causes swelling and pain around the joints. According to the foundation, around 1.5 million of people in the United States have the disease.
For a while, arthritis didn’t really affect Avery’s ability to play piano. But, during a piano exam when she was in high school, her hand “just swelled up and froze up and kind of bailed on [her].”
Avery went on to get her bachelor’s degree in music, but by then playing the piano had grown more difficult. At this time, Avery discovered her passion for writing, and she went on to get a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Arizona State University.
“By then piano was very, very difficult, so I was sort of in need of a creative surrogate,” Avery said of writing.She started to write a fictional novel, but felt like she wasn’t writing the right story. When a teacher advised her to write a book she would want to read, Avery realized what she really wanted to write.
“I thought, ‘The book I want to read is nonfiction; it’s about rheumatoid arthritis handled in a smart poetic literary way, not in a self-help way, not in a spiritual way,’” Avery said. “So with [my teacher’s] encouragement, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just start writing really what I wished I could have read when I was 17 and wondering what this would mean for my life.’”
Inspired, she started to spend evenings after work sitting in a Starbucks writing away. When she won a writing contest with Real Simple Magazine, she realized that maybe she wasn’t the only one who wanted to read her book.
“It became the way I was making peace with not being the pianist I had set out to be,” Avery said. “Making this book come to be was going to be the way I would be okay with not playing the piano.”
After a decade of work on the book, Avery published her memoir, her first full-length book, in May 2017. From the emails Avery has received from readers since then, she’s seen her book resonate with readers in many ways, whether they are musicians themselves, have illnesses or just relate to the feelings she explores in the book.
“It’s been really important to me and really gratifying to me to see that the story has these sort of tendrils that connect well beyond arthritis, and even well beyond physical disability, with people at all stages of life, about how do you keep loving yourself and plowing forward at a life that you’re really excited about when something unforeseen and complicated seems to get in the way,” Avery said.
Kwoh talked with Avery about the book at the festival. One of the themes that stuck out the most to him is the power of perseverance and not letting one’s illness define their life.
“We all have different paths in life,” Kwoh said. “She had one path that for that time was impacted by her arthritis, but she was able to adapt and now she has another path in terms of finding a different passion, and that’s very important.”
And now, that passion continues to grow: Avery is working on her second book, a fictional novel this time. She planned to get feedback at the Masters Writing Workshop that follows the book festival.
But that doesn’t mean her love for the piano has gone away.
In November, Avery was invited to be a keynote speaker at the Arthritis Foundation’s 2017 Conference of Champions. There, she played alongside renowned concert pianist Byron Janis, a moment that Avery called “a thrill of a lifetime.”
Since then, Avery plays the piano almost every day. She said it’s not like she used to play. What she can play is more limited, but still, she plays.
“It’s funny,” Avery said. “The book was supposed to be my way of saying goodbye to playing the piano and being okay with it, and all it did was bring piano back into my life.”