There are many good reasons for writing that have nothing to do with being published. Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is that it allows you to come to terms with your life narrative. It also allows you to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace. –William Zinsser (“How to Write a Memoir,” In: The American Scholar, Spring 2006.)
Many years ago, I attended a summer creative writing workshop led by Pat Schneider, author of Writing Alone and with Others. Still numb and disbelieving from completing a seven-week regimen of radiation for early stage breast cancer, I’d signed up for the workshop at the urging of a dear friend.
The first morning, I sat in a circle of men and women feeling a wave of uncertainty. Why was I there? What was I going to write? I half-listened as Pat introduced the workshop, my notebook open and waiting. “Tell me something I can’t forget.” she said, quoting a line from a Tess Gallagher’s poem, “Each Bird Walking,”” in which the female narrator asks her lover to “Tell me… something I can’t forget” (lines 50-51), and he responds by telling her how, as an adult man, he had the task of bathing his dying mother. (From: Willingly, 1984)
Tell me something I can’t forget. I drew a blank. What in my life might be memorable to another? I had only a few minutes to write, so I began with what was most accessible: childhood memories, humorous stories told and re-told at family gatherings. It would take nearly a full week of writing before I opened the door to my experience of cancer, and while I didn’t think of myself as a cancer patient or survivor, so treatable was my diagnosis, I began to understand how cancer—even early stage—had already altered my life. From that point on, my writing opened and deepened into the life experiences that had defined and changed me as a person.
“A patient is, at first, simply a storyteller…a narrator of suffering—a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill. To relieve an illness, one must begin, then, by unburdening its story”– Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (p.46).
“Decay is the beginning of all birth,” Kat Duff remarked in her book, The Alchemy of Illness, 2000). Duff was writing out of her experience with CFIDS (chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction. Writing out of a cancer diagnosis or any significant and painful life experience can help repair the damage done to your lives, to your sense of who you are, or explore the disrupted futures you might face. Writing together, as those in my expressive writing groups do, allows you to tell your stories and share your experiences. We are our stories, and in the act of sharing them, we affirm our uniqueness and discover what is most meaningful. “I did not want my questions answered,” Arthur Frank wrote, describing, his illness in At the Will of the Body. “I wanted my experience shared.” In doing so, we remember who we were, and we learn who we are becoming. Cancer–or any significant or painful life event–changes us and, perhaps, has the capacity to “remodel us,” as poet Jane Hirshfield said, “for some new fate.”
In my experience, ill people become more themselves, as if once the excess was stripped away only the truest core of themselves remained… An insightful, experienced oncologist told me that cancer need not be a person’s whole book, only a chapter. Still, novelists know that some chapters inform all others. These are the chapters of your life that wallop you and teach you and bring you to tears–Alice Hoffman (In: “Sustained by Fiction While Facing Life’s Facts,” NY Times, August 2000.)
Hoffman wrote for during her ten months of cancer treatment to find “a way to make sense out of sorrow and loss.” Indeed, to be healing, writing demands you examine the tough chapters of your life, learn from them and take that knowledge into your present life. “Recovery is only worth as much as what you learn about the life you’re regaining,” sociologist and cancer survivor Arthur Frank wrote in his memoir, At the Will of the Body. It’s not just cancer that teaches us. As Hoffman notes, any momentous, challenging chapter of our lives has the potential for significant learning.
I am the only one who can tell my story and say what it means.– Dorothy Allison
Writing as a way of healing isn’t just a process of pouring your sorrow and pain on the page. To truly learn from your experiences requires something greater of you–the courage, as Maxine Hong Kingston tells the war veterans who write with her, to “tell the truth.” Writing honestly requires courage. It may seem difficult at first, because you have to be willing to dive deep beneath the surface of the events to do some hard soul-searching. You may begin with cancer, but invariably, you find yourself going deeper into your life and the events that shaped you, old wounds that have yet to heal to discover the truth of your experience. It’s then that the potential for healing begins.
To relieve an illness, one must begin, then, by unburdening its story. Cancer is rarely the whole story, but it often leads us to the stories and experiences in our lives that matter most. What is the story you want to tell?
- Begin with Tess Gallagher’s line, “Tell me something I can’t forget,” and begin writing freely, without stopping for fifteen minutes.
- When you’re finished, re-read it. What stands out? Use a yellow highlighter to mark those passages.
- Use the one highlighted phrase or sentence that most grabs your attention and begin again. How does the second version differ from the first? What insights do you discover?
Write hard and clear about what hurts. – Ernest Hemingway