Writing When Your Life Depends on It
The truth is that writing has always been hard for me. This is both an understatement and a commonplace. Most writers will tell you that writing well under the best of circumstances is nearly impossible. Think about it: you are trying to commit to language the whole spectrum of fugitive emotions, cobweb sensibilities, inchoate longings, repressed fears, hopes, dreams, grievances, and delusions, for which there are, literally, no words. It’s like trying to write a libretto for a thunderstorm—”Crash! Boom! Bam!”—or narrating a sunset—”There’s this pink light, and now it’s getting more intense, more fuchsia, then mauve…” Not that the interiority of human consciousness can be compared to the majesty of the natural world, but it’s still quite a rich and complex palette, and any attempt to pin it down with language is necessarily reductive—an approximation of a shade, of a moment’s impulse, that has already passed.
Add to this that I’m a sentence fetishist, a word wanker, and you get a sense of the difficulty. I tell my students all the time to just let the first draft fly, that it’s better to crank out pages and worry about quality later. “Revision is where the magic happens,” I tell them. For a long time, I had “Dare to be bad” written on a scrap of paper, like a fortune cookie aphorism, above my computer screen. But I have always been a parsimonious drafter, unable to continue on to the next sentence until the one before passes muster. Worse, each time I sit down to write, I have to start at the beginning, smoothing out the words like wrinkles from a bed sheet, before moving forward.
Imagine, instead of just bushwhacking a trail with a machete, bringing in a backhoe and a chainsaw. What’s the point of clearing a path before you even know where it’s going? In my writing life, I have cut many well-pruned trails leading nowhere, dead-ends in a labyrinth of false starts, because even, (and especially), the most well-crafted sentences are useless in the face of wholesale changes in theme, direction, or storyline. That’s hundreds of pages, representing days, weeks, months, of back and forth, fits and starts—thrown out because a closer look at the larger picture revealed them to be irrelevant, redundant, or inert. However hard won, they had to go.
Then, I got cancer, and writing got even harder. Set aside the fact that chemotherapy makes me tired and headachy, and that “chemo brain” is an acknowledged medical phenomenon, resulting in acute dumbness—having an incurable disease gives sudden and terrible meaning to the concept of a “deadline.” Someone once said, “Write as if you’ve got a gun to your head.” Meaning, write as though it were a matter of life and death. And here I am, and it is, and I can’t.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out why—or trying to tease out the many strands of reasons, from the Hydra-headed, Medusa hairdo of reasons. For one thing, trying to write a book that sums up all you want to share of what you’ve thought, felt, and experienced as a human being skulking around on this planet for half a century, knowing that there may not be time to write another, is some pressure.
But, there is also a problem of will, of what I call the assertion of ego. Every writer I know, published or not, proceeds from the nervy premise that what they have to say matters to the world, that their voice adds something to the human conversation heretofore unheard, or anyway, not heard in precisely the same way, not at the same pitch or tone, and not by them. Most of my friends are writers, God bless them, and most of them are good—wise, insightful, nuanced, attentive. Their books are cause for joy and celebration. Lately, though, I find myself balking at my own presumption.
Remember that line from Casablanca, when Rick is trying to get Ilsa on the plane with Victor Laszlo? “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” When I was healthy, I thought my problems were significant—I was singular in the world, large within the landscape. Now that I am ill, I feel smaller, more ordinary. Cancer strips you of a certain illusion of specialness—also of stature. Nothing says puny more effectively than lying alone in a cold room, your breast scribbled on, tattooed, and exposed—being zapped with death rays. One irradiated bean, in a hill of beans.
There are a lot more of the dead than of the living, and contemplating the crossing from one side of the stream to the other, as something statistically imminent rather than a distant abstraction, gives one pause.
Think of all the people who have lived and died without comment: prehistoric people who left behind no record beyond their own bones; millions of slaves, across all cultures and civilizations, who built the ego palaces of the rich, and the glory mansions to Gods that were no help to them in their lifetimes; peasants, laborers, servants; tillers of the soil, and cogs in the machinery of industry; indigenous peoples before there were non-indigenous: Native Americans, Aborigines, Aleuts and Inuits, Nubians and Berbers, Ainus and Ugyhurs; civilians and soldiers, struck through with arrows, cut down with swords, bayoneted, shot, poisoned, burnt, blown up, and nuked. It’s hard not to feel humble before so many silent and inscrutable forebears. What can one possibly say to put up against the dignity of their mute passage?
But, maybe it’s less a matter of humility, and more about marshaling one’s resources. Writing is an assertion of ego, certainly, but it is equally an act of abstinence; it requires some distance from the hurly-burly, a stepping back from full participation. Right now, for example, it is 10 a.m. on a beautiful summer day, and there are many things I could be doing—hiking, gardening, spending time with G.—but instead, I am sitting upstairs at my desk, struggling to find words for not finding words. Is this really how I want to spend my remaining time?
Do I want to live, or do I want to write? Sometimes I think it’s that simple. Isn’t it enough to sit outside on the deck with my eyes closed, the warmth of sun on my face? Maybe sneak a few Sun Gold tomatoes, their candy-sweetness blowing up in my mouth. Later, I could watch my dog, Ninja, make her springbok moves in the woods, careening down embankments, bounding over logs, chasing squirrels, zipping and zagging, and, finally, plopping into the middle of a puddle, tongue lolling, her tail slapping water.
And what’s a thousand words a day to that?
It’s occurred to me that maybe I’m just lazy and cancer gives me an excuse. It was easy to justify, at first, what with the chemo drugs making me feel like a cotton-headed blob, without appetite or energy. I spent a whole summer in bed, watching TV on my computer. I could barely formulate a thought, let alone read a book, or set pen to paper, and whenever it crossed my mind to try to write something, in one of the hundred beautiful, myriad-sized notebooks I’ve collected over the decades, I would dissuade myself with a melodramatic line from the lame ‘30s movie I was living in my head. Think Greta Garbo in Camille.”But I’m dyyyy-ing!” Close-up of an arm flung across the face as I fall decorously back against a pillow.
But, as I began to feel better, and I still wasn’t writing, even I got disgusted with myself. Yes, Orange Is the New Black was witty, and featured diverse women characters, and yes, Game of Thrones was thrilling, and well-acted—but, really? Was I going to spend what short amount of time I had left on earth in a T-shirt and underpants, eating popcorn and binge-watching television shows, while consumed by bilious self-loathing? “But I’m dyyy-ing!”I would protest, partially popped kernels sticking between my teeth.
I tell my students that passive victims make uninteresting characters. Nothing is more boring than a willful lack of agency. We want to read about people who act and do and make and choose. We can feel sorry for victims—Little Nell, from The Old Curiosity Shop, comes to mind, or Myrtle Wilson, from Gatsby—but pity is a facile emotion; there’s no place to go from there. And what’s true in fiction is no less true in real life. Have you ever met someone, say on a date, and they tell you the story of their life, and the ex-wife was crazy—she took all his money—and the last girlfriend was crazy—she accused him of being crazy—and the boss was out to get him, and the kids were ungrateful, and even the goddamn dog wouldn’t sit? And that’s supposed to be appealing, how, exactly?
Then, I get cancer, and how can I deny that I’m a victim? It’s a life-threatening disease, and it’s got me by the tits, (literally), and I’ve been told by a preeminent breast cancer expert that it’s Not Going Away. Who wants to read that laugh riot of a story? Never mind that. Who would want to write it?
Well, it turns out, I finally realized, after many episodes of Orphan Black—(that Tatiana Maslany is amazing!)—that I do, but only if I can reclaim some control, not over the cancer, necessarily, though I’ll take that, but over the way in which I deal with the cancer, and with the process of living with the knowledge of it, and only if I can do so with humor, and through digression, and with honesty, and joy, and my characteristic ambivalence. Because, against all evidence, I believe I can choose not to be a victim, or at least to not make victimhood my story. Act and do and make and choose.
So, set aside the pressure, the uncertainty, the laziness, and the self-pity—all the bullshit excuses I made to myself, and here, to you now, (though perhaps there’s nothing to be done about the sentence fetishism); against all the reasons not to write, there is the strong, clear reason to keep at it.
Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” However my illness has destabilized and unseated parts of my identity, as much as I have doubted, second-guessed, procrastinated, changed genres, swapped out projects, angsted, and denied, I am still a writer, and I will do what a writer does. I will go out into the world, to see, and feel, and listen, and I will retreat from it, to reflect, report, and record, and in so doing, I will bear witness to my own life. Act and do and make and choose. No victim here.
Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.