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.


23 Responses to “Dumbstruck”

  1. Regina Tuma Says:

    Your not writing about your experience says a lot about cancer and about writing.

  2. Michael DiSchiavi Says:


    As always, your blog is not only profound but touches directly the heart and brain together. Thank you for your candor. You have unknowingly resolved an issue in my own writing life.

    Thrilled you are doing better!

  3. Louise,

    So good to see you in the in-box because I’ve been thinking about you since that lovely incredible post “All Will Be Well.” I’m grateful you’re sharing even what you did here in the blog about your experience, strength and hope. I like the detail that the movie each evening was something to look forward to. I like the recognition that when one is ill or hurt, knowing the brain still works–at least a little–is such a gift.

    When my father died unexpectedly, and then my mother began dying for 365 days until she joined him, I wrote hundreds of thousands of words in a journal. I was mad with grief, with the insanity of our family gone crazy without the patriarch and matriarch to weight us into some skewed kind of reality. In various forms, I will share those words, I think. I want to. But there are also corners of my life, experience and observation I will never share.

    This is a profound subject you’ve introduced, Louise, you wonderful writer and teacher and thinker.

    As always, thanks.

    Warm regards,


  4. Rosalyn Will Says:

    Dear Louise,

    It’s always a good thing when we recognize our limits, writerly and otherwise. This can seem constricting at first but in a way it’s also freeing, as you have found out.

    I wish you mending, positive things: gentle morning walks, knitting something that makes you happy, being with people you care about.

    Thank you for all you have taught me, and are still teaching me.



  5. […] Mary Ann is vacationing in Norway. Pam is playing in the garden. Elsie is baking blueberry cobbler. Louise is definitely NOT writing about […]

  6. Jayleigh Says:

    Going through a difficult emotional time recently, I stopped writing, even for myself. Most of that time is recorded only in my gratitude journal. I will remember that time in many ways, but my most comprehensive written record comes through the lens of finding things to be grateful for in the midst. I am now starting to get back into regular journaling, the kind I did before, but had been wondering why the strange shift, why I didn’t write out my many thoughts and feelings to help me through. Your post helps bring me to the insight that there are ways in which I do and do not feel I need to record certain things, and those ways can vary according to circumstance, and all is still well.

    Thank you.

  7. Nancy Caronia Says:

    Thanks, Louise. As always, an important reminder for all of us who write. Not everything can or will be written. Nancy

  8. Anna Says:

    Oh, Louise, welcome back to your blog and to those of us who read it. Thank you for giving such clear and elegant form to what must have been a disruptive mess, and for reminding us that even though writing is necessary to our lives, we can abandon or keep private some aspects of our writing without fear that it will somehow deteriorate or turn around and punish us. Thank you for the reminder that we each write from a slightly different place in the heart, and that we have to be well acquainted with the complexities of our own hearts to be good writers.

    Be well,


  9. Margaux Says:

    Dear Louise,

    This was such a wise and beautiful entry. The silent time of reflection seemed to allow its birth. And we all need to hear that writers have limits just like everyone else.

    Many hugs,


  10. Lisa Gulvin Says:

    It was comforting to get your new post. Whether you share your experience or not is your choice. The fact that you write this blog is gift enough. I look forward to reading whatever you choose to share. 🙂
    Lisa Gulvin

  11. Jade SV Says:

    Dear Louise,

    I sit down today to try to write once again a chapter that I have never written to my satisfaction…I am wrestling with the limitations of words; realizing how no words will ever be enough for me for this particular series of events. But beyond that I seem to be determined to not allow words to express it; meaning that wedded to my conception of this event is it’s immensity in my child self’s mind…it can not possibly be articulated. To articulate it is already to depart from how it felt to my child self.

    I wrote some, struggled, came to your blog and found this entry. As always you provide just the right perspective and clarity…I find that I have until today assumed that to write is to be able to write anything…today I am accepting that that might not be so, and that this inability does not undermine my worth as a writer, or the worth of the work.

    Thank you for sharing this.



    • Kirie Says:

      Dear Jade, Louise, and whoever reads this,

      Thanks for what you said too, Jade. I’ve read that (some) writers have a certain “material” they return to again and again. Sheila Kohler, for example, has said that the murder of her sister by her husband marked much of her her writing. I have a certain traumatic event in my childhood I note, as I organize my writing files yet again, I’ve written in first, second, third person, from all sorts of angles, starting with the two full journals I wrote after the event trying to make it make sense.

      Heaven forbid I’d be able to talk to any humans about it at the time! Fiction was and is my way to process.

      Louise has a wonderful post about this somewhere in the archives – about how she wrote certain events in third person. When I read that, it validated this exploration and re-exploration (and possibly never finding quite the “right” way to tell a particular story).

      Best to you, Jade, in your process.


      • Jade SV Says:

        Thanks so much for this Kirie; it’s always so wonderful to hear about other writers’ processes with parallel challenges.

  12. Anne Says:


    I’m so glad to see you’re posting to your blog again. I started to read two of your books in early June, then I discovered your blog the day you posted this. Serendipity. A positive sign along the path.

    I feel such a connection to you because of many similarities: asthma, feminism, sexual trauma, moving to Montclair. I respect and appreciate your work. Although you haven’t accepted the role, I think of you as a mentor, so sharing about your writing process has encouraged me to write again. Thank you.


  13. Julie Raynor Says:

    As so many times before, your words here helped me, Louise, and at a time most needed. Love, Julie

  14. Hazel Santana Says:

    Dear Louise,

    It am dumbstruck myself to see that someone as talented as you encountered the same problem I’ve come across various times in my own life.

    Since I was about 9, I got into the habit of keeping a personal journal where I wrote my deepest feelings and thoughts in. I wrote about everything; how my day went, the boys that I liked, my first kiss, birthday parties. And I also wrote about my most painful experiences, difficult family problems, deaths in the family, and heart breaks. For me, it was self-liberating. I felt lighter and stronger. It gave me a new perspective on things I didn’t understand.

    But, like you, there were also times where I just couldn’t write, because there were just no words to express the depth of my heartache. And after reading this, you made me feel like that’s okay. That sometimes silence is better, and maybe when the time is right, I will surely write about it. And if not, that’s okay too.

    What you wrote here is so powerful. Thank you so much for sharing your heart with us. It means a lot.

    Hazel Santana

  15. Alexa Says:


    Funny that I should read this only an hour after a heavy realization – the relationship between my mother and I would make for a memoir that would heal my wounds and help me to express my feelings about what’s happened between us in my life.

    I know that my anecdotes and ponderings would be successful; I have so much feeling about the subject. But at the same time, I was conflicted. I know that writing this particular memoir would break my mom’s heart and her spirit. She would not see it as an objective piece of writing; rather, she would feel worse than she has in her entire life, given that I have told the truth. I want to write it. I can’t write it. I can’t do that to her. This is what you’ve written here – not every writer wants to reveal some inner parts of themselves. In my case, the writer in me wants to – the daughter in me can’t.

    Thank you so much…for many things.

  16. Walter skinner Says:

    Dear Ms. De Salvo,

    This is such a beautiful message with amazing message of how there are some things that cannot or should not be penned.  I too feel as thought I am writer who is able to write about anything. Now I am not so sure. However, I’ll know thanks to your post that it is okay not to if I choose so. That the possibility of knowing that I can’t exists eases my mind of some level of expectation. I don’t have to write everything. This is not a betrayal to my craft. Through your post, I understand that.
    What I also gained from reading your post is how you still found a way to use the experience in writing. It is no novel, but this blog carries such a potency of the experience you underwent, yet you barely go into it. In fact you wrote around it to talk about it. This encourages me to this experience I had the other day.
    I was unclogging the toilet one night with a cheap three dollar plunger from the local liquor store. And for twenty minutes I perform the same motion, the half inch up and down, splashing what now is think brown water. The smell was gagging and forced me to contemplate on giving up. However what kept me going was the duty I undertook which I must complete. So instead of giving up, I try to think about my parents to try to relate them somehow. I wanted to think of them and make some magical connection to the swooshing liquid. I though of their arguments, my father’s gambling addiction, their separation, how I am supposed to feel. But nothing surfaced. I could make no connection. This futile endeavor I must see to the end could not relate to my parents illed relationship. Then I realized that was the connection. That the bridge between the mu parents and the experience was my trying and failing to come up with a connection. I realized from that experience as I realize now from reading your post, everything is material somehow. Everything is an experience that can be shared even if the piece is about not sharing it or the failure of a hoped for realization. I could not think of way to use that scene until now. Until I have as inspired by your post. Thank you for your wonderful entry. 

  17. Mel Sutaris Says:

    I completely agree. I think that there are instances that take place in our lives that we can’t seem to write about to the public. The things I write in my personal journal mostly stay in my personal journal. Even as an established writer like yourself, you feel the same way as I do. Some things just need to be kept personal.

    I bow to the fact that you have written about your writing problems on your blog, although you didn’t want to share your ideas with the public. I feel as though there are certain things that have happened in my life that I cannot seem to write about. I’m beginning to consider that I am not ready to write about these things. I know it will come to me soon.

    Personal journal entries are the heart and soul of ourselves. Not as writers, but as people. We can genuinely transform from the writer to the human being, because within our own walls we have no expectations or duties. We can write about whatever we want to write, for whatever purpose. Not every story is meant to be published. Just to be written. Thank you for clarifying this notion.

  18. Dear Ms. DeSalvo,

    I had never considered how ruthless and cold those words “just write about it” could be until now. I think we all sometimes take the liberty to impose the notion that writing is an all encompassing solution to trauma or loss.

    For writers in particular, I imagine the task must be even more daunting. When you are a writer, it is what one must do. I imagine the person has considered “writing about it” but for some profound reason cannot. This collateral damage is doubly felt by the writer; a paralyzing effect of remembering and keeping a privacy that most writers usually shun in their writings.

    I agree wholeheartedly that in today’s literary culture there’s the expectation of exposing and bearing all for the sake of our shock driven culture. There remains a mystery to me, of at which point does the writer revisit a closed or buried chapter of their life. Enough for one to saunter through the forests of evasive events and memories; to bring it to a palpable form.

    There are some aspects that I don’t think I’m ripe enough to write about honestly. I hope perhaps, somewhere down the road I’ll be able to tackle them.

    Thank you for sharing. I imagine it was no easy task.

  19. Erin Van Horn Says:

    Ms. DeSalvo,

    It is really a wonderful talent–being able to take life’s unfair battles and bringing heart to them, relatable for all readers. Your “therapy” of writing despite death, sickness, trials and tribulations is profound. I have heard it said that if you’re born to do something, you do it no matter what barriers present themselves. You definitely prove that.

    With this generation’s longing for technology, I find myself writing a bit more on my Smartphone than in a journal, as I had done through high school and part of college. If a thought comes, I jot down acronyms to remember the moment and details of a scenarios I find myself in, or remember by some random trigger. Although I am not sure my longing for “writing” is as high as yours, I understand your need. My need for writing comes to life more so with music–these random scenarios and/or memories I encounter and write down on my Smartphone usually end up becoming song lyrics that I keep to myself. Writing has the power for me, as it does for you, but in different ways.
    Not having been through many of the ordeals you have been changes my perception of writing. It has definitely allowed me to look at the task as more of a necessity–something not decided upon but, instead, craved.
    Thank you,

  20. Scott Moul Says:

    Ms. DeSalvo,
    I am stuck. Until reading your post, I had not given too much thought as to the chief cause of my hesitancy to write (my assigned memoir draft) over the past week. I haven’t felt well for some time (nor has my young daughter), and this semester’s workload is becoming almost unmanageable. These factors seem to be simple enough reasons for my lack of memoir progress. Might as well add, to that list, my continued uncertainty regarding the shape my “final” (for the class…I hope it isn’t my true final) memoir should take.
    Yes, those are all valid reasons, but there seems to be something else going on. Since beginning Dr. Giunta’s class, I have reveled in the excavation of memories. I have not been able to write nearly as much as I would like (see: semester/overload), but I have seized every free moment to do deep mining in the farthest reaches of my past, and have delighted in laying the findings out before me, to contemplate their significance and possible utility within my upcoming memoir.
    Suddenly, though, this has all come grinding to a halt. In your essay, you write: “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.” I think I may be in just such a place.
    My mother, diagnosed with diabetes late in life, has been struggling all winter with bronchial issues. She has spent several weeks in the hospital. Up until now, she had managed to dodge the pneumonia bullet. Earlier this week, she called me and informed me that she finally received that diagnosis. I know, rationally, that this is not necessarily a death sentence. On the other hand, pneumonia is obviously dangerous for an elderly woman, particularly a diabetic. I am not 100% healthy myself, so I hesitate to drive to Massachusetts and expose my mother to some other form of sickness, although of course I want to be there for her. Worse, she was planning a visit to NJ in two weeks to see her granddaughter, and also to relive me of some child care duties during a week when my daughter’s day-care is closed.
    I have just recently begun to address, in writing, the death of my father six years ago and the death of my grandmother this past August. I feel entirely unprepared to face my mother’s frailties, in writing. I know that I have learned ways to deal with fear of loss and grief, but I have nothing to refer to when imagining having to describe, to my 2 and a half year old daughter who knows nothing of death, why her beloved grandmother might not be there anymore.
    “Not writing” is not an option for me in this case—unless I wish to fail my course (I don’t). I must quickly figure out a way to “write around” this stopper. Of course, much of my memories don’t involve my mother, at all. It is amazing, though, to notice how much of her is in there, explicitly or indirectly.

  21. It is understandable that some things must be kept private. We all have our own methods of dealing with grief. One of the methods that people have are keeping it to yourself and never speaking about it. Others however need to get it out and onto paper. I am not one of those people. Like cancer, being involved in a combat situation has taught me the same things…..there are certain things that must remain private. Maybe just knowing that a part of the story is told is enough. I know that knowing that others know what happened to me in Iraq would be anything but helpful.

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