Two weeks after my debut novel "dropped" into the world, I was diagnosed with stage 3 endometrial cancer. Since then, I've done a six-week book tour across North Carolina, had a radical hysterectomy, gone on a blog tour and started chemo. Not exactly what I'd expected in what was supposed to be 'my' year.
At first, I didn't want to tell anyone about the disease, but that quickly became unfeasible; people were contacting me to do readings and I had to explain why I couldn't; my editor had been patiently awaiting my revisions to the second novel and I didn't want him to think I was dawdling; and, I figured it was something my agent should know. So, I went public.
As I deal with the gritty life of coping with cancer, I've noticed some similarities between the writing life and living with cancer. An odd coupling, to be sure, but one that has landed on my head. For what it's worth:
1) Part of the joy of writing is the surprise stories and poems often bring. Just when the writer isn't sure of what to do or where to go, inspiration hits and you're off, the adrenaline pumping and the muse calling back over her shoulder, "Hurry up!" Cancer is a surprise, too, though not in quite the same way. Three little words--you have cancer--can turn your life upside down in just those seconds it takes to utter them. That is the power of words. And that is the substance with which writers work. To render words into poems and stories carries its own power and that power can change the world, too. Just remember, that one word--Yes!--is all you need to keep going with writing, even if the yeses are few and far between. Yes, I like this story! Yes, I want to publish this poem! Yes, this novel is for me! One word, in the blink of a frog's eye, the world is changed again. Yes, we can cure you! Yes, you'll have treatment! Yes! And, while I love the sudden insights writing can bring, surprises like being diagnosed with cancer are the kind I could do without. But there are good surprises even in that--suddenly, I'm very clear about how I want to live the rest of my life. Being a more dedicated writer is one of those aspects cancer has brought into focus. Plus, I've been writing such a long time, I know everything that happens is grist for the writing mill. Cancer is just one more thing I will know about and understand in a very personal way. More grist, better writing.
2) I've been writing professionally for over twenty years. I started late in life, raising and supporting my family first, like many writers, I suspect. Two qualities helped me make it those full twenty years before my first book (AT HOME IN THE LAND OF OZ: Autism, My Sister and Me) was published---patience and perseverance. I can't tell you how many times I've rewritten that memoir, carefully excavating more details, searching through my father's records, reorganizing and touching up the story until it finally found a home. For a woman who wants to hit the ground running, quickly doing chores on the way out the door, such patience does not come easily. It's a skill at which I've had to work hard.
Perseverance, on the other hand, is more in my nature; some might call it stubbornness. I can dig in my heels and not move an inch. This has proven to be helpful as a writer. I really do believe you can move a mountain, one little pebble at a time. So, while I'm not always naturally patient, I have a bulldog's tenacity. Over time, I have learned to have patience with the process, to understand that sometimes, writing moves of its own accord to its own rhythm. And to keep at it, no matter what.
Cancer seems to operate on similar principles. It shows up unannounced and quickly gets to work. To deal with it, I need to be patient with the process, even though the process is debilitating and sidelines me from most of my other work. I need to keep on getting the treatments until my doctors tell me it is time to stop. I can't quit. Luckily, because of my writing life, I begin to understand these concepts and can use what little discipline I have developed as a writer to become a healthy cancer survivor.
3) Faith, hope and love seem to be important in the writing life, as important as patience and perseverance; faith in your work and in the ability to bring the vision in your mind to incarnation; hope that the effort will be seen and valued by others; and love---love of the project, of every character and every nuance in the work, of your own small abilities, of the smorgasbord of joy, tragedy, foolishness, that make up this wild, crazy experience of being human. These same qualities impact the cancer life, too--faith in your doctors to have the knowledge to cure your illness, hope that you'll be one of the good statistics, and love. Love received in the form of meals prepared by strangers who are trying to help, from friends who call and hold you when you cry, from family members who allow you to scream and moan and complain and refuse to turn away. And the sudden love you feel toward this imperfect, yet fully-functioning body--the same body you have chastised for its wide hips and tendency to pad the middle, the same body bearing stretch marks from the birth of three fine sons, the same body that gives you the pleasure of birdsong, a sunset, the spinning earth, every single day. It is for love we write; it is for love we live.
My life as a writer has served as good preparation for the unexpected. I never dreamed I'd get cancer right after my book was born. But there it is--we're never really ready for such events. I guess if you're going to be a writer, you have to say 'yes'---yes to it all--yes to the love and yes to the pain; yes to the deadly doldrums of recovery and yes to the debut novel being released. Yes to the fear and yes to the courage! Yes to receiving as well as giving love! Yes to the skylark and the raven! Yes and yes and yes!