September 13, 2012
So…. what is your major writing challenge right now? When I’m writing, I sometimes become overwhelmed by all the challenges I’m facing, as I am now, taking up, again, the book about my father and World War II after putting it down over a year ago.
One way I calm myself down during such a time is to stop and ask myself to articulate the single most important challenge I’m facing. And then I ask myself if I can discover a strategy to help me face this challenge. The payoff, I find, is that I feel more in control of the writing process though it is, of course, always mysterious, always full of surprises.
Although I imagine that I know what my major challenge is, it’s not until I take some time—twenty minutes or so—to free write about it, that I truly begin to understand what I’m facing.
For example, when I came to a halt in the midst of writing a book about moving, I was puzzled about why my writing came to a halt. I did what I tend to do to get beyond this impasse—make some new writing rules for myself; remind myself of the routines that work best for me. I tried a new schedule, writing in the afternoons instead of the mornings; writing by hand instead of on the computer; free writing instead of writing according to a plan. But nothing worked. Something was stopping me, and I hadn’t taken the time to figure it out, no doubt because I didn’t want to know.
One day I decided to take my journal and begin facing what it was that might be getting in my way. I wrote “My most important challenge right now is….” at the top of the page and then let myself free write for twenty minutes to see what would happen. I knew, when I started, that I might find myself in territory that I hadn’t yet examined. And I did.
During that writing time, I discovered that I was still in the process of mourning my father, who had died in the midst of my writing that book. Suddenly, writing about moving seemed trivial to me. Mourning, I knew, was a process you couldn’t rush (though we’re encouraged to try to rush this process in our culture). And yet, I had rushed right back to my work as soon as my father was buried, assuming that I could force my writing self to work when my mourning self needed some time—perhaps a great deal of time—to process my father’s death, for we had a complex relationship, though in the last months of his life, there were moments when we connected as we never had before, once, looking at a reproduction of a portion of the Sistine Chapel frescoes by Michelangelo.
I realized that I had two choices. Either I could pause in my work and mourn my father. Or I could use my writing in a way that would help my mourning. I knew from my research on writing that many writers—Mark Doty among them in Heaven’s Coast—used the creation of their work to help with the losses they’d suffered, I decided to continue to write. But in a different way.
In the months that followed, I allowed my mourning to inform my writing. I wrote about the moves my father had made in his life and went off on a tangent, writing more about my father than the book I was writing could ever accommodate. Still, in time, I realized that I needed to write this material, and that I could use it in another book once I returned to writing the moving book. And, in time, the book about moving, too, shifted as a result of my decision. I began to understand that moving is a kind of death, and I began to deepen what I had written with this insight.
When I’ve asked writers I’ve worked with to undertake this exercise, their responses have illuminated their works in progress. Often, their answers surprised them. And when I asked them to develop a strategy for dealing with this challenge, each of them quickly discovered what they needed to do right now.
Some writers discovered that they, too, were in the process of mourning: one decided that she would learn abut the form of the elegy, that she would read memoirs that were in fact elegies (Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother is one), and that she would write an elegy for her dead parent. One writer learned that, in researching a parent’s life—the subject of their memoir—she’d become overwhelmed by what was learned because it contradicted what was remembered about the past; she decided that she would figure out a way to write both narratives—the ones she discovered through research; the one she remembered—and she realized that this might make a more interesting and complex narrative, for it would illuminate the difference between what is remembered and what has been recorded.
Another writer, relating the narrative of a parent with a terminal illness, noticed that she was confused about her work because the story of her mother’s illness changed each day and she didn’t know where to begin the narrative, where to end it. When pondering what a solution might be, she learned that she wanted to represent her confusion on the page, that she might even tell the reader something like, “Where to start this story, where to end it, I don’t know, for this is the life I am living right now and there’s no getting away from it, there’s no getting distance from it.” She understood that writing about the experience as it was unfolding was necessary for her and that it might be illuminating for a reader. (I suggested she read Arthur W. Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller, which discusses this challenge.)
One writer realized that she wanted to write about what she perceived to be the truth about her family without vilifying its members. She decided to find a way to write the worst possible descriptions of who they were, to tell the reader that this was the way she sometimes perceived them, and then to go back, and write correctives to the caricatures, telling the reader about her process of trying to come to discover what a more equable narrative might look like. (Natalie Taylor’s memoir Signs of Life does this brilliantly. She is twenty-four and pregnant with her first child when her husband dies in an accident; she portrays his mother harshly throughout the memoir, and then, towards the end, rethinks why.)
Yet another writer worried that his writing was coming in fragments, and he didn’t know how he would make a linear narrative of the piece, didn’t know how he would find a thread amidst the seeming disconnections in his work. He decided that a fragmented work would be eminently suited to his subject—his difficult adolescence—but that he would try to find threads in the narrative and write them, but perhaps as a fragment too. (Paul Auster’s recent Winter Journal is a fine model for a fragmented narrative.)
Several writers wondered how to represent in English a childhood experienced in another language for they feared English would misrepresent that past. One decided to use her first language in the work wherever possible. Another decided to write the work two ways—as it would be expressed in English, and as it would be expressed in the first language rendered in English to show how differently each language represented experience. That is, she’d write the major challenge she faced into her work.
One writer relating a traumatic experience feared he would be sucked back into “reliving” the past and wasn’t writing because he didn’t want to be retraumatized. He discovered that it was necessary for him to write about this incident, but that he would set a timer for twenty minutes, which, he believed, would help him enter the narrative, and then leave it. He decided he needed to place a boundary around that experience. He decided, too, that if he felt sucked back into the experience, he would remind himself that the incident was in the past, but that he would walk away from the work for the time being.
Writing about our most important current writing challenge, and then posing a solution to this challenge, might open up our writing in unexpected ways. As these examples illustrate, we writers quickly learn what we’re facing, and our challenges push us into unexpected directions, both in terms of subject matter and form.
So what have I learned about my current writing challenge? I wrote that I was afraid to be sucked back into that time of mourning. The solution I posited was to enter the work slowly—to retype the journal entries I’d made about working on the book and, as I did so, to assess my ability to reenter the work. I’m almost finished with that task now, and when I’m finished, I’ll rethink whether I want to continue.
August 1, 2012
For many years now, I’ve had the same writing partner, Edvige Giunta, whom we all call Edi. Edi and I have co-edited a book, The Milk of Almonds, and some of our best writing memories are when we sat in my sun-filled kitchen, drinking espresso and eating biscotti, as we first dreamed the book we would produce, refined our vision, solicited essays from women across the United States, edited first one essay and then another, and wrote and revised our Introduction. Some have called it a landmark work, this collection of essays by Italian American women about the connection between food and their lives, and to us it was. A landmark in our writing—we learned how to work collaboratively and we learned that our writing lives were infinitely more pleasurable and productive when we worked with and sought the advice of a like-minded writer.
Writing doesn’t have to be—I almost want to say shouldn’t be—solitary. I know that when I shrink from contact with Edi, when I go a few weeks without working with her, and, instead, work alone, I get weird. I second guess every judgment I make. I feel like I’ll never get my work done. I can’t figure out what to do first, second, and next. I doubt that the work I’m doing is worthwhile. And yet there are times when I get so caught up in my work that I don’t seek the counsel of Edi, my wisest writing friend. I forget that having a writing partner in my life is a blessing and a gift and that I should ask for help when I need it, which is often.
These days Edi and I are again working actively together. She is finishing editing a book with another collaborator and she is also working on a second draft of a memoir about her young adulthood in Gela, Sicily. I am finishing my book about writing. We’ve found a way of working together that suits us both at this stage of our lives, and I thought you might like to hear how we go about our work.
First, we decided that we’re not necessarily going to share our work, although we might at some point. Edi has said that she’ll read anything I want her to read; I’ve told her I’ll read anything she wants me to read. Still, we both believe that sharing work too early in the process is an invitation for disaster. What, after all, can someone say to a published writer about a work that’s not in its penultimate stage—the stage where it’s ready for someone to read but when it needs perhaps one more revision? Edi and I both work provisionally in a project’s early stages—I’d be giving her meanderings rather than lucid prose; Edi works organically and so what the manuscript looks like now is nothing like the book will be. We’ve both had the unwelcome experience of being asked to read a writer’s work-in-progress and comment upon it while the writing was in its initial stages; both of us have labored to come up with helpful comments; both of us have been told, upon sending off our suggestions, that it’s okay, the writer has already moved on to another draft. We’ve both wasted this kind of time. I don’t want to waste Edi’s time—she’s an enormously busy woman; and she doesn’t want to waste mine. And so we hold back our work from each other and we don’t share work until it’s ready. Sometimes we don’t share it at all, and the first time we see it is when it’s published. This might sound strange. But it’s worked very well for us.
For what we need from each other is something far different than an editor: we need a collaborator in the process of doing our work. We’ve learned that if we have ongoing conversations about the process—detailed ones—then we each can go about our work more confidently.
So, what do we do instead of critiquing our works-in-progress?
We talk about our works-in-progress. We’ve made a plan to have a telephone meeting once a week on Monday at 10AM to talk about our work. We’ve established a few ground rules. During that meeting, which usually lasts about three-quarters of an hour, we talk only about work. We don’t talk about our teaching, or about our families, or about whatever challenges we’re facing in the other areas of our lives. (We have those conversations at other times during the week.) We talk about our writing, only. During the rest of the week, we can check in with each other about our work, but briefly. I’ve called Edi and asked her if I can ask her a quick question, and she’s complied. But I respect that she has a very busy schedule and that we’ve set aside this other time, so I try to gather my questions together to discuss with her at this one time. Establishing these boundaries has made our partnership work.
On Mondays, when we check in with each other, Edi usually goes first. She tells me what she’s done during the past week on each of her projects. She then reports on whatever writing challenges she’s now facing. This past week, she’d established one chapter in a “Second Pass” folder and she’d brought that chapter up to the kind of polish she is looking for at this preliminary, but not early, stage. She’d looked at another chapter (that she’d heavily edited), which will soon be at the “Second Pass” stage and will become, she’s almost sure, the second chapter. As she reviewed that chapter, though, she realized that she had another document in which she established the geographical and historical background that was pertinent to understanding both the second chapter and the first. Should this be, she wondered, a kind of interchapter? Or should she take material from this chapter and insert it into the first and the second chapter. In passing, she remarked that she’d made the edits to the second document on the printed page of the chapter. What did I think, she wondered.
As we talk, I take notes on my computer so that Edi and I have a record of what we discuss. This is enormously useful because I tend to forget the extremely relevant advice that Edi gives me and it’s necessary for me to consult the précis of our notes throughout my writing week. Before I answered, I quickly reviewed the notes I’d taken from Edi’s report.
“Enter the handwritten edits in the second chapter into the computer and make a clean copy,” I suggested. “You’ll go crazy if you try to introduce new material from that interchapter unless you have a clean copy.” And she agreed. We also discussed that at some point she could reread the interchapter and intuitively decide what material could go there. I suggested that she make entirely new documents when she does this—to “play” with introducing the interchapter material into these two other chapters for awhile rather than committing to doing it right away and she thought this was a good idea.
I asked Edi how many hours she had in the coming week to devote to her writing. She’s completing another book, she runs workshops on memoir and yoga, she’s preparing to teach in the Autumn, in addition to living a rich and full family life. This is the stage of the conversation where Edi and I commit to a work schedule and a work plan for the week. We try to be realistic so that we don’t set ourselves up for feeling like we haven’t accomplished what we set out to do. We try not to anticipate having more time than we do.
Edi said that, realistically, she had four hours. I asked her whether she could enter all the changes in that time. She said she didn’t know; that it could take her a half an hour or it could take the week’s work time or more. She decided to begin with entering the changes and postpone deciding what to do about the interchapter material. In the meantime, she can reread that interchapter, and let the decision about what material to shift into which chapter percolate. In this way, when she moves to that moment in the revision, she’ll probably know what she needs to do.
I reported to Edi that I’d finished revising the writing book for the third time and that I’d started to establish the order of the first part of the book which will be quite different from the order of the Third Pass. This entailed rereading all the chapters in the new provisional order and deciding whether they worked in this order. This entailed, too, revising any material that was repetitive. I reported that as I began to reread, I realized I needed to revise the Introduction to the book, and I worked on that. I realized, too, that this is such a big book—it’s running over 50 chapters and 300 typescript pages—that I needed to begin an outline of what’s in each part so that I can readily see if any of the chapters repeat what’s been said before.
My question for Edi regarded how I should plan my work during the rest of the summer. Edi knows my work habits. She also knows how I can get myself into trouble when I try to do too much at a time. She reminded me that it’s the summer and that I’m still in recovery mode. She asked me how long it takes me, realistically, to revise a chapter—the chapters are short. I told her that it takes about an hour. She asked if the chapters will need another revision, and I said that, yes, they would, but that I would like to refine what I have one more time right now, so I decided to revise a chapter, and then print it out, and revise it again—a method I used when I was editing my husband’s chapter book which worked very well. The next revision, then, if I need one, won’t be so onerous.
Edi asked me how finished I wanted the manuscript to be. I realized, when she asked me this question, that I want it to be finished enough for an agent to decide whether she wants to work with me on the manuscript. Edi pointed out that though it has to be polished, that if I work beyond that, I’ll be too committed to what I’ve done and I won’t be open and flexible enough to take professional advice. I realized she’s right so that I decided to try to work towards a Fifth Pass draft and to assess, at that time, whether a Sixth Pass was necessary.
Edi asked me how much time I wanted to work every day this coming week. I told her that I wanted to work for two hours. She suggested that this was too much at this particular time. She suggested, instead, that I set a goal of revising seven to eight chapters during a five-day work week which would mean that I will have completed the revision of the first part of the book. If I continued with this schedule throughout the summer, it would mean that the book would be in its Fifth Pass stage in seven weeks, by the first week of September. But Edi reminded me that, when we worked on The Milk of Almonds together, I insisted that we added a year to our anticipated date of completion so that we didn’t feel pressured. “Add another week, at least,” she said. “Aim for the middle of September or late September.” And I agreed.
Talking specifically in this way about a work-in-progress is invaluable to me. I know it’s invaluable to Edi too. I come away from our meetings revitalized. I know that the work I’ve planned for the coming week is doable; I know the direction my work will take.
If you don’t already have a writing partner, try to find one. Set boundaries. Set meeting times. Commit to keeping your appointments. Commit to doing what you and your writing partner have outlined for the coming week. Edi and I have found that you don’t have to read work-in-progress. Having a fruitful conversation like the one I’ve outlined here has helped me much, much more than any critique of a work-in-progress could provide.
June 28, 2012
So how do we writers know what our goals are? How do we motivate ourselves to stay on track while we’re working? How do we know where we are in the process of completing our work? How do we turn our day-to-day stint at the desk into completed pieces of work? These are among the most important questions a writer can ask. And each writer must answer these questions in a way that respects her own process.
But before I starting writing my memoir Vertigo, I went to Weight Watchers. Losing weight wasn’t about vanity for me; I wanted to be in good enough shape to chase after my grandson. Weight Watchers is so successful because the meeting leaders share the reasons why the program works (if you stick to it); they share the research that has been done about weight loss. During the time I spent on Weight Watchers, I learned many valuable tools and I decided to apply them to my writing life. I lost the weight; I wrote the book. I’ve kept the weight off; I continue writing.
Determining a goal. Thinking about possible outcomes. Setting an intermediate goal. When you go on Weight Watchers, the first thing you determine is your weight loss goal. There are charts that help you figure out what your optimum weight should be based upon your sex, your age, your height and so, the amount of weight you need to lose. But you must determine this yourself, in collaboration with your leader and, perhaps, your doctor. So let’s say that you need to lose fifty pounds. That’s far too daunting a goal to think of. So the program has you determine your first intermediate goal—5 or 10%, say, of the total amount of weight you want to lose, which would be two and a half or five pounds. “Wow,” you tell yourself, “I can do that!” Too large a goal, I learned, is so terrifying to contemplate that many of us stop ourselves before we even begin trying to accomplish something.
You talk, too, about other goals—like wanting to feel physically fit; like improving your cardiac health; like wanting to fit into clothing that has been languishing in your closet. These goals, you learn, will happen automatically if you stick with the program and begin to lose weight. You can’t set a goal of feeling physically fit just like you can’t set a goal of being a famous writer. But you can set a goal that you have the power to accomplish: losing weight; writing your pages. And then you write all these goals and intermediate goals down. It’s essential that you keep a written record of your journey.
I knew that I wanted Vertigo to be 90,000 to 100,000 words. I’d written my statement of purpose about what the book would be about. Still, it felt even more daunting to have to write that many words than it did to lose weight. But I decided to use the Weight Watcher technique to set an intermediate goal 5% goal—5,000 words, or roughly twenty pages. This wasn’t scary at all; it felt was eminently doable.
How do we motivate ourselves to stay on track? At Weight Watchers, the leaders strongly urge members to track everything they eat each day. (Each member has a number of “points” roughly equivalent to the number of calories they can eat each day.) Research, the leaders tell the members, has shown that people who track what they eat lose weight more quickly, stay on track longer, and feel better about their progress than people who don’t. In fact, record keeping seems a necessary component for a successful weight loss program. And yet, many members don’t do this. These are the ones who either fail to achieve their goals or drop out. You need to know what you’re eating if you’re going to lose weight.
Similarly, a writer needs to track how much she’s written during a given day so that she can view her progress. She might want to track, too, whether she’s worked a half hour, or two hours—whatever. She can write down something about the subject of her work; she can cite whether she was generating new material, revising, organizing her papers—whatever. This record can prove invaluable to track the genesis of a book, say. It can provide a writer with a written document to review when the going gets rough. Let’s say the writer believes she’s not working hard enough on her book. If she reviews her log, she’ll know whether that’s a feeling with no basis in fact or whether that’s a feeling rooted in the reality of her not getting herself to the desk.
I believe that a writing log like this is essential to the successful completion of a project. And I always strongly urge writers to keep one. I’ve also learned that those writer who have no way of tracking their work are also the writers most likely to abandon projects or to become extremely dissatisfied about their writing journey. Keeping a log is one way we tell ourselves we’re making a daily commitment to our work, that we’re serious about it that we intend to do everything we can to reach our goal.
Weight Watcher leaders tell new members that, although you can come and weigh in and leave, that if you stay for a meeting, you’re more likely to reach your goal. There’s something about sharing your journey with others who understand what your journey is about that helps the process. In any meeting, there will be “newbies,” Life Members, people who have achieved their 10% goal, people who are just pounds away from their goal. Each member has something significant to offer every other member.
I’ve always believed that “in progress” meetings of writers are useful. Squirreling ourselves away and doing our work in private might not be the best way to reach our goals. I’m not talking about sharing pages. I’m talking about sitting with other writers and talking about the challenges of working. This kind of talk is so useful that I make it an integral part of each class I teach. We all learn from each other. The most important thing we learn is that whatever challenge we face, we’re not alone in facing it: someone in the room also has the same issue in doing the work. This makes us feel less isolated and alone.
When a Weight Watcher member reaches an intermediate goal, he is publicly acknowledged, and he gets a star, a pin, a sticker—a little something to acknowledge the achievement. The member is encouraged, too, to reward himself with, say, a dinner out or a new book—something special to mark that moment. This reward helps keep the person on track; it marks significant milestones along the way to achieving the final goal. And because losing a significant amount of weight can take a few years—about the time it takes to write a book, incidentally—periodic rewards are essential if the process is to work. This is something that writers often forget. How have we rewarded ourselves for work accomplished lately? Have we?
How do we know where we are in the process? When you’re in Weight Watchers, you chart your progress. You weigh yourself once a week. (Life Members—I’m a Life Member—sometimes weigh themselves every day.) You chart your weight loss or your weight gain. The chart is a visual indication of where you are in your weight loss journey.
In writing Vertigo, for the first time in my writing life, I began to keep a chart of where I was in my process. I knew that I had, say, 50,000 words written in my first draft, and this meant I done 50% of the work towards my goal; that I had 50,000 words yet to write. Knowing I was halfway there was very important to me. The next day I worked, let’s say I wrote 1,000 words. That meant that I’d done 51% of the work towards my goal! At the end of each workday, I “ran the numbers.” This simple act helped me keep at my work more than anything else. I could “see” the progress I was making.
I also printed out my pages each day and added them to the stack of pages on my desk. I believe that writers who never print out their work until they’re all finished deprive themselves of the significant small physical reward of taking a small stack of papers and placing them on the bottom of a larger stack of papers. Whenever I felt as if I weren’t accomplishing a thing, I could glance over at the pile of papers on my desk. That made me feel good; it made me feel like a writer at work.
It also helped me to remind myself of where I was in the process. Was this the first pass? The third? Would there be one or two more? I like to know whether I’m just beginning; whether my goal is to finish a working draft start to finish; whether it’s to revise and deepen a draft; whether it’s to proofread the work and make it ready for a reader.
How do we turn our daily stint at the desk into finished products? The answer to this question is easy. In Weight Watchers, you’re taught to think, not about the product, but about the process. You’re taught to think, not even of one day at a time, but of one meal at a time. You’re taught to get right back on track the minute you’ve gotten off track. You’re taught not to beat yourself up about what you haven’t done but to plan on what you’re going to do next. You’re taught to use a number of tools—positive self-talk, reframing the challenge, planning ahead, anticipating challenges and preparing solutions for them—to help you along the way.
But the key, really, with our writing is just sticking to the process, one day at a time, no matter how difficult it seems. It does become easier, with time. It becomes habitual. If we stick to the process, just sticking to the process makes us feel good about ourselves. Sticking to the process, in time, becomes a way of life.
June 24, 2012
I was the writer who thought that I’d write, no matter what. I thought I’d write after I broke my leg and had a lengthy operation to repair it, and I did. I remember lying on the sofa with my leg in some expensive-to-rent apparatus that moved it back and forth and writing the introduction to a collection of Irish women writer’s work while my co-editor fed me research because I couldn’t get to a library. I thought I’d write as my mother was dying and as my father was dying, and I did. I wrote about them both after spending hours by their bedsides, wrote, even the day of their funerals. I thought I’d writer after I broke by foot and had to stay off it the better part of the day for months, and I did. I penned blog entries and worked on the book about my father’s experience during World War II. I thought I’d write after I got diagnosed with Lyme Disease, and I did, even though my brain wasn’t working the way it should and I couldn’t remember the beginning of a sentence I wrote by the time I got to the end of it and had to reread and reread until I committed the sentence-in-progress to memory; even so, I wrote with Lyme Disease and my pages made sense, though I knew I had to recover from Lyme Disease to turn those pages into a book—I seemed to have lost that ability until the disease was cured, or at least, until it went into abeyance.
I thought I’d write when I was diagnosed with cancer. And I did, for a little while. Some blog posts. Six pages of writing entitled “The Cancer Book”—did I really think that I could write such a book after an operation, during the recovery from an operation, during chemotherapy and after? I suppose that I did. I wrote about how the day before my cancer diagnosis was a fine day indeed. About how I’d shopped with my daughter-in-law’s nephew to help him set up his apartment: we chose some furniture, some linens, and though I don’t shop much, I realized that I was good at that kind of thing. I wrote about how, while I was having that fine day with George, this tumor within my body was growing. I wrote about how I learned that I had cancer. I wrote about how, after my diagnosis and before my operation, I tried to lead a normal life but that all I could think about was cancer. I wrote how if I wrote the word often enough, I could make it real. The last sentence I wrote in “The Cancer Book” was this: “But then there are moments when I don’t think about the cancer at all.” And that’s all I wrote (except, as I’ve said, for the few blog posts) since September. And then I didn’t write. Not for a very long time.
Or perhaps it’s incorrect to say that I didn’t write for all those months. I did write, but in my journal. I wrote, not for a public, but for myself. I wrote to describe what I was going through; I wrote to keep my spirits up; I wrote to describe my pain, my anger, my sorrow. I wrote so that I would remember what helped me and what didn’t and what helped me was establishing and keeping a routine of writing as often as I could for twenty minutes a day; of exercising when I could (a very slow walk for a few minutes); of resting and napping; of eating well; of meditating; of knitting; of watching a movie at night—something I looked forward to.
After awhile, I found that I could edit some work—not my own, but a children’s chapter book called Steven and the Fuzzmanians that my husband had written. How I loved to go to my desk late in the day and edit several pages of his work. I needed to believe that my brain was still working. I needed to move sentences around. I needed to use language.
Recently, a good friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer. A friend of hers told her to take good notes so that she could one day write a book about cancer. We met recently, and I shared, with her, my own story—that after I was diagnosed with cancer, I thought that I might write about it as I experienced treatment—that is, that I might write about it with an eye to making that writing public—but that I found I didn’t want to. I told her that everyone has to choose the way they do cancer; I told her that sometimes people expect writers to express what that experience was like; I told her that she had to decide whether she wanted to. I did not want to and I do not want to now.
And then I thought about all the times I had said, unthinkingly, to someone I knew who was going through a hard time that they should write about it. “Write about it,” I’d say. What an unfeeling thing to say to someone suffering. You get cancer. Write about it. Your father dies. Write about it. Your child is injured. Write about it.
What do you say to a writer who has cancer? To a writer whose parent has died? To a writer whose child is injured? Write about it? Writing will help?
I don’t think so. Or I don’t think it’s necessarily so. Because for the first time in my writing life, I found that writing about something didn’t help at all. That there was nothing I could do but live through what I did moment by moment by moment. That I had to experience it in all its rawness. That writing about it in my journal didn’t allay the feelings I had, didn’t put them into perspective, didn’t allow me to achieve distance from them—all the things that I’d always thought that writing could do. This was an experience I had to feel; the writing I did recorded, to the extent that words could, what I lived through. But I learned, too, that there are many experiences that can’t be put into words or, rather that there are many experiences that can be written about but that the writing will only ever be an inadequate simulacrum for what happened.
And so, at least for now, I’ve chosen to keep this one subject to myself. It’s not something I want to write about; not something I want to talk about; not something I want to remember. I don’t want to go back to that time; I don’t want to go back over that experience. And I was that writer who believed that I could handle any subject. Not so.
I hope that I’ve emerged from this experience able to understand that, for some writers, there are experiences that, for them, will be kept private and that’s all write. I will view that as a legitimate choice that we writers make. I will not assume that if a writer chooses to sidestep something important in the life in the work that there’s something wrong with the writer—a failure of nerve, an incapacity to climb deep into experience, an avoidance of something potentially important.
I promised myself that I would never, in writing, pen the words “Cancer taught me….” But I will break my promise to myself and write these words. Cancer taught me that I am not capable of writing about everything I’ve experienced. And it taught me that I must respect those writers who consider some aspects of their lives to be private and off-limits in their work.
February 9, 2012
All Will Be Well
Tomorrow is my last round of chemo. And today I’ve taken the pre-chemo meds to reduce the possibility of an allergic reaction to the drugs. I’ve packed my “chemo bag” – movie, water, chocolate, chewing gum, book, knitting, comfy blanket, eye mask (so I can’t see what’s going on at the beginning of the process). Tomorrow we’ll pack our food. So, I’m ready. Or as ready as I can be. And I’m convinced that tomorrow, and in the days to come, all will be well and that I will make slow, steady progress to wellness.
“How can you stand it?” a friend of mine asked. “How can you stand not knowing whether the prognosis you’ve been given [a good one] will pan out?”
“I have no choice but to stand it,” I responded. “And I choose to think that all will be well.”
I’ve had people tell me every possible thing that could go wrong after chemo. I’ve chosen not to listen, to try, instead, to “be in the moment” with whatever I’m experiencing. I’ve chosen to try to listen to my own body; to “see” where I am, rather than to anticipate all the difficult things that might happen. Rather, I anticipate that all will be well. This doesn’t come naturally; it takes work because I come from a background of very pessimistic people.
I’ve had a lot of help from reading the lives of people who’ve been where I am before me. And I’ve read a lot about how to approach difficult situations like this. What I have done is work very hard at incorporating what I’ve learned into my life right now, and into my writing life, too, because much of what I’ve learned to get me through this period in my life, we can easily apply to our work as we write about our lives. (More about this later.)
Just before my last round of chemo, I read an article in the AARP magazine about a man with a chronic condition. What impressed me, and what I took away from the article – the basis of what I write here – is that he said he chose to believe that all would turn out well for him. This way, he didn’t contaminate whatever pleasure each day contained with the fear of what would happen to him in the future. In pop psych jargon, he didn’t “futurize.” He said that, yes, he realized this was irrational, given his diagnosis. He said, too, that you have to constantly readjust to every shift and change that occurs in your body, that the adjustment to your condition is ongoing, that it isn’t over all over at once, and that it demands an constant awareness of the condition of your body, a constant checking in. This is, of course, both true and wise. (I’ve read books – and I’m sure you have too – that suggest that you should work toward a moment of adjusting to something, of getting past something, of accepting something. My good writing friend Edvige Giunta reminded me a while ago that this is a Western concept that denies the ongoingness of human experience, of living with, rather than overcoming, something that has profoundly affected us.)
One of the advantages of this life I’ve been living is that I’ve been reading books I’ve wanted to read for ages. One is the remarkable, The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn (New York: The Guilford Press, 2007). I’m a fan of Kabat-Zinn and have tried to read everything he’s written.
In The Mindful Way, the authors report on an experiment called “The Mouse in the Maze.” In the experiment, two groups of students were shown a cartoon mouse trapped in a maze. Two different versions of the maze existed: one showed a piece of Swiss cheese at the exit of the maze’s mousehole; the other, an owl hovering to seize the mouse in its talons.
The task was easy; the maze took only a few minutes to complete. All the students completed the task. Later, the students were given a test to determine their current state of creativity. “Those who had helped their mouse avoid the owl turned in scores that were fifty percent lower than the scores of students who had helped their mouse find the cheese. The state of mind elicited by attending to the owl had resulted in a lingering sense of caution, avoidance, and vigilance for things going wrong. This mind-state in turn weakened creativity, closed down options, and reduced the students’ flexibility in responding to the next task” (124).
So, knowing that all would not be well for the cartoon mouse was enough to significantly diminish the creative responses of one group of students! And knowing that all would be well for the cartoon mouse was enough to significantly boost the creative responses of the other group!
I’ve pondered what this means for me as a person undergoing chemotherapy, and also, of course, what this means for me as a writer.
According to the authors of The Mindful Way, if we approach any task with “qualities of interest, curiosity, warmth, and good will,” we’ll be “countering any effects of aversion and avoidance that might be present.” This takes conscious cultivation.
Now imagine two scenarios in our writing lives. In the first, we sit down at our desks, and we tell ourselves, before we’ve written a word, that everything we write will turn out boring or horrible, that we’re really not talented, that we’re writing because we’re taking a course not because we have any intrinsic interest in what we’re doing. In the second, we sit down at our desks and we stop a moment to cultivate a state of interest and curiosity towards what might emerge under our pens in the next several minutes; we stop a moment to congratulate ourselves for taking the time to sit down to the task, and we think, with eagerness, of the sense of fulfillment we’ll feel when our writing is done.
In our writing lives, if we deliberately cultivate the notion that “all will be well” with our work – and with ourselves as writers – it very well might enhance our capacity to be creative.
January 25, 2012
It’s a beautiful morning here, where I live in the northeast. A nice enough morning for a walk – it’s in the mid 40s. A present during this time of the winter when it’s often far too cold for me to walk. And today, five days after my last chemotherapy, an especially welcome day, for I never could have ventured out for a walk if it had been windy, wet, and wild and snowy, as it had been a few days ago.
So I dressed in layers, wore a soft wool hat to cover my now bald head, and decided to walk, yes, but to stay close to home, which meant a wee walk up the block and back, and then, if able, all around the little park nearby, then home. Twenty minutes at the most, but I could bail out at ten, if necessary, and given how I’d felt on Monday, the third day after chemo (confined to bed most of the day, unable to eat, except toast and Sicilian orange jam – I’d insisted on that luxury for myself on that miserable day when I needed at least one pleasure), I felt sure I’d walk less today rather than more. For I hadn’t exerted myself to any great degree yet, though I’d walked a tiny bit yesterday. Whether I liked it or not, I had to accept that I was back to Square One – very weak and lacking in stamina, so that anything I could manage was (I knew) damned near heroic, though I didn’t want to think of it in that way.
But you’re told to walk for your recovery, to try it even if you think you can’t. Or rather, you’re told – and this is a good system – to assess where you are to determine whether you should exercise. If you feel your strength is at a 5, then exercise. If a 4, then exercise. If a 3, start, be prudent, then stop if you become fatigued. If a 2, then rest rather than exertion is in order. If a 1, then don’t even consider making an effort. And…always make sure you have some energy at bedtime; don’t go to bed exhausted.
I like this system. It’s one I’ll take with me into my post-chemo life. It’s a little system I’d wish I’d known about before. How many times have I sat down to write something on a project when I was a “1,” when rest, rather than work was in order? How many times had I wasted the energy of a “5” to do something that didn’t move my work forward, like write long unnecessary emails or read stupid stuff on the Internet (a review of the garments the First Lady has worn since President Obama took office – appropriate reading for a “2” moment, if at all, I now realize)? How many times did I even reflect upon the amount of energy I had, and how I could most appropriately use it?
Well, this morning I was a “3,” and I was prudent, and, much to my surprise, the act of walking energized me, and so I continued, continued past the ten-minute mark and took myself up past the little park. At one point, gazing at the trees in the park, many of which were ravaged during the fluke October snow, I thought to myself “I am here.” Where that sentence came from, I don’t know, but came it did. Perhaps it was the gratitude that I’d been out walking for, by then, nearly fifteen minutes, that made me so aware of my being-ness, of the fact that I was where I was. Just that, no more. There are those moments when you’ve been diagnosed with a dangerous condition that the recognition of “I am here,” though so simple, staggers you with its its implications, and that’s what happened to me, today.
So, on to writing.
How many times in my writing life have I wanted to be other than where I was at the moment? Not “I am here, and isn’t it a miracle that I’ve walked even this far.” Not “I am here, and aren’t I lucky to be here right now, caught in the mire of this very difficult chapter which presents so many learning opportunities to me.” Not, “I am here, at the beginning of the process, which I vow to relish.” But “Damn it, I wish I were finished with this section.” Or, “I can’t wait to finish this piece so I can start that other.” Or, “I only wrote 250 words today; I wanted to write more; what’s wrong with me?”
The day after chemo – at least the regimen I’m on – you feel okay. The medications to limit negative reactions are still in your system. You feel rather “up,” in fact. Two days after chemo – a bit more “normal,” but still “up.” The third day after chemo, for me (and not everyone) is my “killer day,” the day when I can barely get out of bed, the day when everything hurts, the day when my nose leaks and my eyes tear and much, much more. I’d been warned about this, but early in the process, I somehow thought that what happened to other people wouldn’t happen to me. On my third day, I’d somehow avoid what others had to suffer through. (Infantile power fantasies; delusional thought system; arrogance; stupidity – call it what you will.) Then round one of chemo, and whack – the third day, the “killer day.” Then round two of chemo, and whack – the third day, the “killer day.” By the third round, though, slow learner though I may be, I figured I’d get whacked (though I still hoped I wouldn’t), that it was inevitable, that I shouldn’t fight it, that I should prepare for it (expensive Sicilian jam in the house; good bread in the cupboard; nice, clean sheets for the bed; meditation tapes on the end table to get me through the night when I awakened). So I was ready. And for the first time, I didn’t fight it. I can’t say I liked it – I didn’t. But, just like on my walk today, I thought something like “I am here.”
I didn’t waste my energy protesting where I was in the cycle. I didn’t wish it were different. I didn’t blame myself for being where I was (and let me tell you there are plenty of dangerous books out there about cancer that say, in effect, you cause it, you can prevent it, you can shrink your tumors by using your will). I did something that’s hard for me. I accepted where I was in the process.
Accepting where we are in the process of writing. That’s a wonderful skill to cultivate. And I say it’s a skill because, quite simply, it is. It isn’t easy. It takes work, just as accepting where I am in the process of chemo takes work (reading the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn; meditation; simple yoga, journal writing). But it’s work that’s worth doing. And, like everything else that we do that’s good for ourselves, it’s a lifelong process.
And – and this I didn’t expect – after my walk, here I am (I am here), writing.
December 28, 2011
So, here I am, getting myself ready for my second chemotherapy infusion. The process itself started today, with oral medications that reduce the possibility of an allergic reaction to the chemo drugs. I’ve gotten out a little carry bag and packed supplies for tomorrow, and while I was doing it, I thought about writing (which I’ll get to later).
Into my little carry bag, I’ve packed a DVD (“Mamma Mia” – they have a big screen TV in the infusion room). Some knitting (the last sleeve of a multicolored sweater I’m knitting). Wipes (I’ve become a fanatic about hand washing). Hand cream (I’m trying to keep my hands soft through all the hand washing. Gum (I always have a dry mouth now and it truly helps.). Chocolates (treats for enduring chemo, eaten regularly during the few hours I’ll be there). Earplugs and sleep mask (I don’t want to see or hear what they call the “stick” when the nurse inserts a needle into the port in my chest for the infusion). Water (of course – hydration, essential). The book I’m reading (Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese – a magnificent book set in a hospital in Ethiopia; it’s written by a doctor and describes, not only the kind of procedures done there in detail, but also the history of Ethiopia during and after the Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign, including back-story about the Italian invasion; it’s the kind of book I’m preferring at this time – huge, epic, set in another country, filled with graphic descriptions of landscape, historical events, complex unforgettable characters). A very big picnic lunch (Roast Beef and Potato Salad on an Onion Roll and Carrot Sticks; I was the only patient eating during chemo last time; the nurse was thrilled – “We want you to have enough energy to walk out of here,” and I did). A scarf I’ve knit for my oncologist (I hope he likes it).
You might say that I’m prepared for tomorrow.
But of course I’m not prepared. Who could be? Lots of my friends have been telling me, “You’re doing such good work preparing yourself for this experience”; “You’re dealing with this so well”; “You’re such a good patient”. I want to disabuse them all of these false images because it perpetrates a sense that there are people who do this kind of thing well (me) and people who don’t (someone else). I don’t like those divisions, those dichotomies. I can say, and will, that I’m doing the best I can. But I can’t say that I’m prepared.
Because I’ve gone through this once, it’s not as scary as the last time, that’s for sure. But still, there’s no telling what will happen. So “prepared” isn’t the right word. Because as prepared as you think you are for whatever you’re encountering – partnership, childrearing, elder age, illness; grieving – you’re never prepared and you don’t know what will be what until you begin the process. I think I learned this during the past several years from reading all the war novels I’ve read. Once the first shot is fired, nothing ever goes according to plan, and if you’re in combat, you’re always in an ad hoc kind of world, prepared in some ways, and unprepared in others.
In thinking about what the right word might be for what I am at this point, the only word that I can come up with is the word “Ready”. I’ll have all my stuff (my talismans) with me. So let’s just say that I’m ready for tomorrow. Not prepared for tomorrow, by any means, but ready to respond, as best I can, to whatever happens. Notice that I’ve said respond “as best I can,” not “respond well,” for who can predict the future. I certainly can’t. (And I can tell you that it’s a terrible burden to someone to respond “well” to a difficult situation – “I know you’re do fine during chemo; you’re just that kind of person”. So that in addition to living through something tough, you’re expected to live through it well. “Johnny is taking his father’s death so well.” Why should he?)
While I was packing my special chemo carry bag, as I said before, I began thinking about writing while I was thinking about what I was trying to do in packing that little bag.
The truth is that when we sit down at our desks (or wherever we happen to be writing – in the subway, at a café, on a bench outside), we can kid ourselves into thinking we’re prepared to do the work of writing just as I could kid myself that I’m prepared for tomorrow. We have our story (we think). We have our set of skills (we’ve worked hard at them). We have our little or our big plan (an outline, or, in my case, my many outlines). We have our “deadline” in our head or written down (the book will be done by the end of the summer, by the end of September). And, of course if your writing life is anything like mine, even though we might think we’re prepared, we also carry with us all those threads of terror and doubt. Me, write something that makes sense? Me, finish a book?
I think that I will, in the future, try to think about how, when I sit down at my writing desk, I want to be, not prepared, but ready. That’s all. Ready. Ready to write. Ready to see what happens when I write. Ready to respond to what unfolds under my pen. Ready to duck and swerve the mental demons that make me want to stop writing. Ready to keep my concentration and not check my e-mail, the day’s news, and the latest dumb thing some cat did on You Tube. Ready to stay at my desk for the full half hour, hour, two hours, whatever. Ready, even, to let myself witness myself enjoying the process. Ready to change my plans, ready to change my narrative, ready to elaborate on something I hadn’t intended to. Ready to protect myself as a writer and walk away from the desk should I feel myself “reliving” an event rather than “writing about” it. Ready to walk away from a publication situation that starts to feel abusive.
Ready seems doable to me.
I started thinking about readiness in writing, actually, on Christmas Eve, when I read Nancy F. Koehn’s New York Times article, “Leadership Lessons from the Shackleton Expedition.” (I might write more about this soon.) On his attempt to reach the South Pole, Shackleton’s 1914-1916 expedition faced disaster upon disaster. Shackleton thought he was “prepared,” but he wasn’t. Yet, he did not lose one crewmember throughout the ordeal. And the reason was that Shackleton responded “constantly to changing circumstances”; he manifested the skill of “consistent reinvention.” Though his goal had been to reach the South Pole, he changed his goal to making sure all of his crewmembers survived. This entailed his ability to jettison his initial goals, to honestly assess his situation, to be “present” (rather than oblivious) to what he faced.
So, how’s this for a description of Writing Readiness? The ability to respond “constantly to changing circumstances”; manifesting the skill of “consistent reinvention”. I’m thinking that this is what I’ll work toward – in my chemo experience and in my writing – in this New Year.