I don’t write about what I know: I write in order to find out what I know.― Patricia Hampl
For several years, I’ve taught transformational writing (writing to heal) for the UCLA extension Writers’ Program. At the beginning of each new course, I routinely ask my students for brief synopses of the writing project that had prompted them to enroll for the class. Not surprisingly, most students could only describe what it was they wanted to write in the most general of terms, no matter the pain or trauma that had brought them to the course. What they quickly learn is that writing, no matter the genre or form, is always an act of discovery.
We write, as author Patricia Hampl said, not about what we know, but to find out what we know. Plumb the depths of sorrow, suffering or trauma, and you find question upon question. Writing ultimately leads you to some answers, but it demands you stay open to the possibility of surprise, of discovering that what you thought you were going to write may not be what is written at all. The answers we seek, whether in life or in fiction, are gradually revealed. We struggle for answers and grope blindly in the darkness before we stumble on a new insight, or new direction. E.L. Doctorow, award winning novelist, summed up the process of writing a story: “You can only see as far as your headlights but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Living with cancer is not unlike the trip Doctorow describes. Diagnosis introduces a multitude of questions, ones you can ask your doctors; others that keep you awake during the night. You get through the surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, but even after all that, you still can’t see too far ahead, despite every assurance offered. Your life is punctuated by many more questions than answers. “How likely is it to recur? What if the cancer has metastasized and is lurking somewhere else in my body? How long do I have?” The truth is that no one knows for certain. You navigate through it all in the same way a writer writes a memoir or a novel, able to see only a short distance along the path, but trusting that little by little, you’ll find your way into the answers you seek. For example, in a poem written during her treatment, one woman questions what she can do:
Can I? Can I just do it? Can I do it all?
Can I ration my time to allow for my priorities?
Can I ask others to share the burdens?
Can I refuse this role of superwoman?
Can I just ‘say no?’
Her questions gradually lead her to answers, actions she can take:
I can. I can just say no. I can just say,
“I’m out of the business of doing it all.”
I can take time for myself to breathe
And dream or just sit quietly.
And I will!
(“I Can’t,” by Carlene Shaff, In: ” Finding the Words to Say It: The Healing Power of Poetry,” by Robert Carroll, Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005 Jun; 2(2): 161–172.)
In my cancer writing groups, I sometimes use the poem, “Questions in the Mind of the Poet While She Washes Her Floors” by Elena Georgiou, as a prompt inviting participants to explore the questions they have in their lives. Georgiou asks several questions of herself in the poem, for example:
Am I a peninsula slowly turning into an island?
If I grew up gazing at the ocean would I think
life came in waves?
If I were a nomad would I measure time
by the length of a footstep?
If I can see a cup drop to the floor and shatter
why can’t I see it gather itself back together?
If a surgeon cut out my mistakes
would the scar be under my heart?
How much time will I spend protecting myself
from what the people I love call love?
Would my desires feel different if I lived forever?
(In: Mercy Mercy Me by Elena Georgiou. Copyright © 2000)
Georgiou offers no answers to the reader, only questions. “Don’t search for the answers,” Maria Rainer Rilke counseled a youthful protégé in Letters to a Young Poet, “which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Live everything. Live the questions… Live the questions now. Live your way into the answer. Rilke’s words stay with us. Living ourselves into the answers is not an easy thing to do, especially when we’re faced with something as life-threatening as cancer, and yet, it is all we can do. There are no guarantees, no crystal balls to foretell our futures. We live our way into the answers we seek.
Life is filled with unanswered questions, but it is the courage to seek those answers that continues to give meaning to life. — ― J.D. Stroube
- Explore the questions you face, whether triggered by a cancer diagnosis or another unexpected difficulty. Make a list in the style of Georgiou’s poem. Then choose one and begin writing. After 15 – 20 minutes, stop. Reread what you’ve written. Did you discover anything new? Keep writing. You just may write yourself into some of the answers you seek.
- Think of a time earlier in your life. What questions did you have and how did you have live your way into answers? What did you discover? Which questions seemed most persistent? Looking back, how were your questions resolved?