Thursday, April 26, 2012

What Cancer Has Taught Me About Writing And Living



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!

35 comments:

  1. Wow. Just wow. Thanks for letting us share your journey today. I believe I might whine a little less now. Good luck, and keep saying Yes!

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  2. Thank you so much. I love this post. Best of luck in your fight - though I know it's not luck you want or need, but peace and strength. With your "yes" attitude, I have confidence you'll be joining me in the survivor pool. Thank you again.

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  3. This is so beautiful Anne. Tears are streaming down my cheeks. Your courage and strength are such an inspiration, and your wisdom and wit bring such joy to BP! I'm honored to know you. Sending hugs and love. oxox

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  4. This is a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing your strength, wisdom and courage with us! Take your time. Let your body heal. Then get back to writing.

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  5. Thank you all for reading...and Pam, I hope to join you :) Ellen, I feel the same way about YOU!!

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  6. Anne you are such a miracle yourself! You truly inspire me because you manage to find joy in your life even after all of this. It makes me want to pick up all of the broken pieces of my own life and step out into the sunshine again. I should be grateful that I have my health. Much love and prayers for a speedy recovery. Looking forward to your next book, and thoroughly enjoying "At the Queens Mercy."

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  7. Anne.... such a truthful and touching post. Thank you for sharing your inspirations and spreading them to those that read this. Holding you close in my heart and I hope that you have a complete and quick recovery. Peace,Cheryl

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  8. Your courageous story moved and inspired me. Thank you for sharing this journey with all of us. God bless you.

    Sincerely, Cyndy Campbell

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  9. May your healing begin as your book is born. I am so proud to be an author who has read your post of courage and faith. Blessings to you!

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  10. There are words to say how this makes me feel but I can't bring them to the surface right now. I appreciate your candor and your strong will which surprises no one. You exude strength just as you are. Now you get to really use it. Thanks for allowing us to participate in your learning experience. You know a zillion prayers are out there with your name on them. As usual, your beautiful spirit and joy of life shines through your words. Thanks.

    Lisa K

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  11. Thank you, Anne. We love you lots!

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  12. Anne, it says so much about you that you would take the time and energy to write such an inspiring post when you're fighting this illness. Thank you. Every word of it rings with truth--even the words that were a bit blurry through the tears.

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  13. You are an inspiration, a beautiful person and soul, and an incredible writer. xo

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  14. Hi, Anne, this is a lovely and moving post. Thank you for your eloquent honesty.

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  15. What a beautiful, touching post, Anne. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us and for taking time to be so open and encouraging. May only happiness and good health greet you in the years ahead.

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  16. Hang in there! We're pulling for you.

    S.P.

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  17. A powerful post--truly inspirational. Thank you for sharing...

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  18. What wonderful wisdom and attitude. For those of us who are healthy and well, it is a reminder to be grateful, and to be ready. This crazy life delivers what we never expect, when we never expect it. I hope for you a very happily ever after--and after, and after.

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  19. Anne, may your road to recovery be as positive as your journey to publication. It sounds as though you have a wonderful attitude and support group--two essential elements to overcoming anything. Best to you!

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  20. Lori Nelson SpielmanApril 27, 2012 at 8:01 AM

    What an inspiration you are, Anne. Wishing you all the best.

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  21. Anne, this is humbling and beautiful and inspiring. I'm sitting here sniveling into my tissue but inside I'm screaming "Yes!" You have given me such perspective through the stress of being book pregnant, and I'm so incredibly grateful for your generosity and support. You are amazing. And I'm crying again…

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  22. Thank you, Anne, for sharing this beautiful post. I hope the writing of it provided some respite from worry.

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  23. This is Anne B. Thank you all for YOUR outpouring of love, encouragement and support. Had my chemo today and am a bit under the cloud and I know it will get worse in the next few days before it gets better. But it will get better and then, I'll be back at it. Love, peace and joy to you all.

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  24. Your story is powerful and beautiful and humbling. Thank you. Sending you prayers for healing and balance.

    Jessica

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  25. A wonderful article, Anne, and I am so proud to know you, you are an amazing woman. I think you were right to go public - just think of all those people now praying for you and it means you can vent when you need to too. xx

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  26. This is really beautifully written.

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  27. Anne, you are an inspiration, as both a writer and a person. You are in my thoughts and prayers.

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  28. In tears reading this - so very very true. All love and blessings to you xxx

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  29. I often say that it was cancer that finally pushed me over into becoming a writer. Before then I was someone who wrote –afterwards, I was a writer writing. And you’re right, we need to roll with the unexpected and take every experience that comes our way. While I’d much rather never have gotten cancer, that fact that I did is irrevocable, and my using writing as a navigator through all the hard-times was a wonderful self-growing sort of support.

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  30. Dear Anne, As one of your readers former reviewers, I can say that your writing has been a source of great fun and inspiration. It's clear that the gifts that brought you to the point of excellence in writing, will take you through this storm, as well. However, I know from personal experience that God wants us to use these things that seem dark and pointless in our lives to bring light and comfort to others. Even the smallest of kernels we learn is the thing we need to share. As you walk through this new path of discovery, I can't wait for the novel you'll be bringing to us. I know that little kernel will be the most wonderful gift you've ever been able to bring us. I know you'll also find it when you listen with your heart.
    Love and hugs, your fan, Deborah/TheBookishDame

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  31. Dear Dame,
    Thank you for your words of wisdom. I'm definitely learning through this experience, though I won't know the lessons until much later, I think. One thing is that God works through the words and actions of other people and, even when we feel betrayed or abandoned, that really hasn't happened at all. Because the love and kindness of even strangers reaches out to us to soothe and heal. Which makes me want to become more of a conduit for that Divine Energy. I don't know where this will lead, writing-wise. But I'll definitely follow it. Thank you all again,
    Anne B.

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  32. Her straightforward manner in professional life is in contrast with.
    obgyn gilbert

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  33. Having firsthand experience battling with cancer will change all your perspective and outlook in life and love.

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