Writing Readiness

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.


18 Responses to “Writing Readiness”

  1. Cynthia Says:

    I appreciated so much about this entry. Especially this point: 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?”….I try not to do this to people though I’m sure I do sometimes by way of trying to be encouraging….I myself never handle anything well. In the months and years after my dad’s death, I turned into a wild animal…thanks for this.

  2. Kirie Says:

    This is one of the most amazing “writings about writing” I’ve ever read. Have you thought about submitting it to that NYT column that comes out on Sunday? I can’t remember now what it’s called, but it’s in one of the magazine sections. For various reasons, I feel everyone would benefit from this post – taking a picnic lunch to chemo, being open and ready for the unexpected.

    I have tears in my eyes.

    Thank you, too, for saying there is no way to be prepared or to handle anything “well” or in any expected or “right” way.

  3. Katherine Says:

    Dear Louise
    Thank you so much for writing about preparations and readiness. I am sending live and appreciation your way today and tomorrow (and the next day and the next)
    When my Dad died, people, including those at the hospice where I volunteer, said I took it hard. How else should I take it? I wanted to scream but didn’t. How should we do any of this, these losses and “challenges,” and necessities and inevitabilites in life?
    In our own way, outside of the judgements (pro or con) of others and hopefully with companions and some comfort.
    Thank you,

  4. Regina Tuma Says:

    Thanks for this piece of wisdom. I will keep it handy and use it as needed. Reinvention is for the living. Thanks again.
    Good luck. The sandwich sounds delicious.

  5. Charles Says:

    I’m sitting in my kitchen looking around at a junky apartment. I’m moving this week, and although I’ve already done so much, I still have so much more to do. I haven’t written in days, and reading this post reminds me I still make excuses for not contributing to my writing group, and reading and writing every day. Things come up, but I have to figure out how to still carve time out for my writing self. It’s a struggle. I won’t whine. I’ll keep kicking myself, and hopefully I’ll eventually give in and honor my love for the craft.
    I pray you’re reading this in full recovery, with smiles and optimism, ready for whatever more life sends your way. Thank You.

  6. Julie Raynor Says:

    Dear Louise,
    Another brilliant post, thank you. “Consistent reinvention” feels exactly right. Ready, not prepared, to meet the mystery of the next moment, with all its uncertainty and promise. Thinking of you tomorrow, and always. Love, Julie

  7. Brilliant ! Be aware of Changing Circumstances. This reminds me that “We are not Alone.” da solo
    Thank You for your courage to share and to give me courage.

  8. Rashena Says:

    Louise, God bless you for your beautiful and honest writing, I got the email about this post earlier in the week but was off for a quick trip ad didn’t have time to read and respond the way I wanted. You were the first person on my mind this New Year’s Day because I knew you would have something poignant to say despite the frightening time you are going through and because I wanted to wish you the best in your recovery and your writing, which we now know, thanks to you, is a very important part of recovery!

    I have the Verghese book but haven’t started it, I will check it out very soon! One of favorite books with that same staggering scope is Let the Great World Spin, but I’m sure you read that. I want to go to Hunter just so I can OCCUPY you both! LOL Then there is Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, which is largely set in Bombay and one of the most captivating books I’ve ever read.

    I’m going through something painful in terms of a relationship changing and this post was just what I needed to give me some perspective. I don’t like what is about to happen, but I’m ready to make the best of it. And take that and write a novel from it…maybe I’LL fuck around and get an IMPAC Award! LMAO!

    Happy New Year, Sister! Stay prayed up with light and love and I will be sending plenty your way.

    PS – here’s a hilarious cat video for you! Naughty language warning. 😀

  9. Lisa Roth-Gulvin Says:

    Thank you for this idea – being ready. Being ready for change. This gives me comfort . I wish you comfort during your treatment.
    Stupid cat trick lover,

  10. I loved your post on readiness, Louise, and the way you wrap writing and chemo readiness together. I’m glad the second experience went as well as it did. Liz

  11. Vanessa Ortiz (Vanessa Melchiori) Says:

    Dear Professor DeSalvo,

    A few hours ago I did a google search for your name, hoping to see you had recently published a book, or would be speaking at a nearby reading. I was your student at Hunter almost a decade ago and your words echo in my mind as though I were in your classroom yesterday. You will never know the great influence your character has had on me, but trust me when I say I remember everything you taught me.

    Finding your blog led me back to wordpress, and reminded me that I too had an account on here once. My first (and only) blog entry was back in 2008. After reading your words today, that changed.

    Even in the midst of your challenging journey, you are still inspiring me to be who I want to be. Thank you for truly living now, what you preached in class, and what you wrote in your books. We are not perfect, but with reflection we can constantly change the course of our lives no matter where we are on its path.

    I miss you, and send many blessings your way. Part of me knows you have to really feel all the goods and bads of this illness because you will write about it one day. And when you do, it will move your readers because it’s authentic. That might not bring consolation day to day while you’re suffering, but when people send you comments about how your book made them feel less alone, you will be at peace.

  12. Mary Ellen Says:

    I too am easily distracted by an amusing cat video on YouTube. It is easy to get down on yourself for not having getting everything done perfectly, and discouraged when things do not go as planned. I think your decision to be ready to respond to change is perfect, since change is exactly what life will always throw at us. I have always felt that a change in perspective is all that is usually needed to get by, and though I do still believe that, your blog also makes me realize that with that change of persepective should also be a change of action. This piece really resonates, as your blogs always seem to.

    Mary Ellen Gillick Davin

  13. walter skinner Says:

    Dear Louise,
    I understand your message. Like everything else I read from you, I left with a piece of understanding that I can use to solve the puzzle of writing well. I was not prepared for the content of your writing when I had first opened the page. However, I was ready to learn, to sponge, and to respond.

    Walter Skinner

  14. Angelica Roman Says:

    Dear Louise,
    I am going to be honest with you. In the past, I have stared at my notebook and pen, my computer screen, and my own work with a bit of anxiety. Sometimes I feel as if not knowing what I will write and not knowing what obstacles I may face hinder me before I even begin. I am taking your words to heart, and with every day I write I am more and more prepared.

    Angelica Roman

  15. Alexa Says:


    It seems as though your writing never fails to correspond to some part of my life, even though this post was written almost a year ago. What you describe – the notion of being prepared for something – is what has really been the downfall of my writing and my productivity in general. I think to myself, ‘I am prepared to do this – but I am also prepared to do this – in a way, I think I am also prepared to do this thing…’ By the time I’m done thinking about how prepared I am, I become overwhelmed, shut down everything around me, and end up playing some mindless computer game to calm my nerves.

    I need this approach, one of being ready rather than prepared. I am prepared, but the word itself makes me think that I can do it all at once. Ready is easier to me – ready is the ability to do one thing at a time. To write one thing at a time. To not become overly concerned about one thing I am writing at one time – to let it come and then find myself ready to read and edit it. Prepping to write, prepping to edit just causes me to freak out and shove my writing away. Ready – I am ready to write – here I am writing. Doing without thinking, knowing that somewhere inside of me, I’m ready.

    Thank you so much for these beautiful words (in this and all your posts); they really get to the captain of this writing vessel.


  16. Melissa Sutaris Says:


    I often find that when I try to write something that I’m not ready for, the piece comes out biased, inauthentic. I think one of the most important aspects of our writing is readiness. If we aren’t ready to write about something, we can’t force it or push it along. We have be willing to let go of everything and just write. This is hard when some of us have trouble letting go.

    Preparing, on the other hand, involves more planning, more thought. Rather than just writing, we feel as though we have to prepare what exactly we are going to write, map it out in our heads. The truth is, we don’t always have to know what we’re going to write. We just have to be open and free with our minds, let the pen take us to new places which we haven’t explored yet.

    Writing isn’t about mapping out the journey turn by turn. I think it’s about getting lost, and what you see on the road back to direction.


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