Dumbstruck - Writers at rest

The art of slow writing - Louise DeSalvo 2014

Writers at rest

I was a writer who thought I’d write, no matter what. I wrote the introduction to a collection of Irish stories, lying on a sofa after I shattered a bone in my leg. I wrote about my father for my memoir Vertigo while I cared for him as he recovered from open-heart surgery. I wrote the day after my sister died; I wrote as my mother was dying and as my father was dying after spending hours by their bedsides. I wrote after I got Lyme disease, though I knew I had to recover to turn those pages into a book.

I thought I’d write after I was diagnosed with cancer. And I did, for a few hours. Six pages entitled “The Cancer Book” about the fine day I had before my diagnosis while, unbeknownst to me, that tumor was growing; about how I learned I had cancer. And that’s all I wrote for a very long time. A writing life, put on hold.

Did I really believe I could write after an operation, during complications, chemotherapy, and a prolonged recovery? I suppose I did.

But all I wanted to do was take walks when I could (slow ones, short ones). Watch children playing. Be with my family. Try to cook. Read. Take naps and baths. Knit, some. Watch movies. I didn’t want to—couldn’t—write my books. I’d been arrogant to think I could write, no matter what.

But I wrote in my journal, as often as I could, for about twenty minutes, just for myself. I tried to keep my spirits up. I described my pain, anger, and sorrow. I assessed what didn’t help me and what did—establishing a routine (a cancer survival guide suggested this). I later learned that Matthew J. Loscalzo, executive director of Supportive Care Medicine for City of Hope, suggests that the “key to dealing with grief … is getting the executive function of the brain active”—“the part … that controls emotions, organizes issues, and solves problems.” One way of “fueling the executive function” is writing—but not immediately after a trauma. Although writing might not lessen grief, it can help us feel more in control.

During my recovery, a writer friend was diagnosed with cancer. Her friend (even before expressing sorrow) suggested she take notes so she could write a book. My friend was considering whether she’d want to. I told her that I’d thought I, too, might write but found that I couldn’t, and that I didn’t want to. (I chose not to share with her how debilitating treatment was for me; she’d find out soon enough.) But I observed that people seemed to expect me to turn that experience into a book.

I thought about those times I’d unthinkingly told someone going through a difficult time that they should consider writing about it. But I now believe it’s unfeeling to say this to someone who’s suffering or who’s grieving. You get cancer; write about it. Your father dies; write about it. Your child is gravely ill; write about it. Your spouse dies; write about it. It’s almost as if the value of a writer’s experience is determined by whether it can be turned into copy, almost as if people who don’t write expect us to write about everything we experience even if we want to remain—at least publicly—silent. In his memoir A Whole New Life (1982) Reynolds Price recounts how he was diagnosed with cancer of the spinal cord in 1984 when he was writing Kate Vaiden (1986). The treatment—surgery and radiation—left Price “paralyzed from the waist down.” For five months after the treatment, Price “just couldn’t do anything but sit in a chair and gaze out the window or at the ceiling.…” He couldn’t read; he couldn’t write; but he drew, “as he had in his childhood.” This period was “a normal reactive depression”; but it was also “a very real kind of spiritual hunkering down.…”

During this time, a friend asked if Price would accept a commission to write a play for student actors. He accepted, and began to write again. After completing the play, he “very rapidly finished Kate Vaiden.” After his cancer, Price became more prolific than he’d ever been.

After Julian Barnes’s wife, Pat Kavanagh, died, it took Barnes “several years to express his grief in writing.” He wrote “hundreds of thousands of [words] in a diary.” But to compose a public document, Barnes “needed to find the right form.” The first two sections of Levels of Life (2013) are about ballooning; the third, a fifty-page essay, is about his descent into “darkness and despair” over the death of his wife. In it, “the classic consolations offered to the bereaved are considered and repudiated: that suffering makes you stronger; that things get easier … that the two of you will be reunited.…” He describes contemplating suicide, but decided that because “he is his wife’s chief rememberer,” he’d be killing her again if he killed himself.

Joyce Carol Oates, who’s written about her response to her husband’s death in her memoir A Widow’s Story (2011), observed that Barnes asked the question “How do you turn catastrophe into art?” in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989). Barnes’s response, Oates writes, veers between “the desire to speak and a stoic reticence in the effort of what Barnes calls ’grief-work.’”

After I was diagnosed with cancer, for the first time in my writing life, I experienced a similar yet far from stoic reticence. The writing in my journal didn’t allay my feelings, didn’t put them into perspective, didn’t allow me to achieve distance from them—all the things I’d always believed writing could do for me. I learned that there are experiences that can’t be easily put into words, or, rather, there are experiences for which the written word can be only an inadequate simulacrum to describe what occurred.

And so, I’ve chosen to keep this one subject to myself. It’s not something I want to write about, not something I want to talk about, not something I want to remember. I don’t want to go back to that time; I don’t want to go back over that experience. I’d thought that I could handle any subject. And, yes, there are writers like Reynolds Price who’ve written valuable books about cancer—Mary Cappello’s Called Back (2009) for example. But I know I can’t.

I hope I’ve emerged from this experience capable of understanding that, for some writers, there are certain experiences that will be kept private, and that’s all right. I won’t assume (as I had in the past) that if writers choose to sidestep something important in their lives in their work, there’s something wrong with them—a failure of nerve, incapacity to climb deeply into a difficult experience, an avoidance of something potentially important.

I’d promised myself I’d never write the words, “Cancer taught me.…” But I will say that cancer taught me I can’t write about everything. And it taught me, too, that I must respect those writers who consider certain of their experiences to be private and off-limits in their work.