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.