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How My Writing Allowed Me to Heal

Posted: 01/09/2014 7:21 am

Margaret Atwood says in Negotiating with the Dead that writers are like jackdaws (a European crow): "We steal the shiny bits and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests."

Collecting these shiny bits is an integral part of the fiction writer's craft, but most writers, including me, are somewhat shamefaced and ambivalent about the process. What if these bits are woven out of other people's secrets? Or pieces of skeleton from the family closet? There's an almost physical urge to use the material that speaks to you, especially once it starts to grow on its own, putting out twitching root hairs, but you don't want to expose or hurt other people.

Nadine Gordimer's famous solution was "to write as though everyone you know is dead." But few writers have the chutzpah to do this, or the moral certainty. For most writers, collecting material has a more secretive, illicit quality. It is gathered in the dark, kept under wraps, then released, with a mixture of pride and guilt, in what one hopes is a sufficiently transmogrified form.

We are crows. But we aren't always particularly proud of it. It's just how we operate.

This was my process writing Oh, My Darling. Story ideas came from a variety of sources - neighbourhood worries about teenage drug use, a conversation on the beach, a book on children of the Werhmacht - and each produced its customary thrill and its customary angst.

Then in February, 2012, as I worked to complete the book, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was thrust into a world of MRIs, visits to the cancer clinic, operations, radiation. I was afraid. Yet, to my surprise, I found myself writing in a more focused way than ever before, with more efficiency and less drama.

This went along with other surprises. I found I had a huge inner resolve to heal myself. I focused on what was good for me. Friendships grew in intensity. I felt surrounded by love.

And even on bad days, I headed to my desk. By disappearing into writing, I had a refuge, and to my surprise the stories I had been having trouble finishing finished themselves. The book grew from seven stories to eight to nine.

I had told myself I wanted 10 in the collection, and, after a dream about an amorous spider, I decided to write one about cancer. I was near the end of my treatment and felt an urge to explore my tangled emotions. I composed a draft, using that love-struck spider as a motif, but the story was flat.

Then in August, a few weeks after my final session of radiation, I headed to a coffee shop in Kitsilano to write in my journal. I opened my diary on the marble table top.

Dear Shaena, I wrote (as I sometimes do in my journal) and then listed the efforts I'd made to heal. Radiation. Tamoxifen. Exercise. Healthy Diet. It felt good to draw up a list.

I took a sip of my tea, then picked up my pen again and wrote,

But wouldn't it be just too awful if you turned out to be like little Beth - destined not to make it to the end of the book.

I stared down at the words.

Where had they come from? They were just so mean. And effete. And oh, so intimate, with their reference to Little Women, my favorite book as a child. In a flash I knew where that voice came from. It was the cancer, which, until recently, had been lodged in my body. Teasing, desirous, sadistic - it was paying me the deepest of attention.

As a woman fighting breast cancer, I suppose I must have been shocked by how the cancer had been personified in the dark of my unconscious mind, then wriggled into my hand and written itself into my journal. But as a writer I was electrified. I'd found the voice of my story. I got on my bike and rode along Spanish Banks, then threw myself onto a bench. In one sitting I wrote down the bones of the story.

The next week my husband and I travelled to Hollyhock retreat centre on Cortes Island. While wide-hipped gardeners moved around me, picking aphids off cucumber plants, I sat under an apple tree and wrote page after page in the cancer's voice: part Humbert Humbert - part Jack the Ripper.

This story became the title story of my collection, and when I look back on writing it I feel proud. And what I'm proudest of, ironically, is my Crow Self -- that dark, collecting part of me that I've so often been ambivalent about.

I wouldn't say that my Crow Self came to my rescue; that would be too grand and too purposeful (and besides, with cancer one never knows - living with uncertainty is part of what I have to learn to do). But my love of picking up shiny bits helped me seize the raw materials of my own life when the time was right. The cancer may have nailed me, but I really felt, as I sat writing under that apple tree, that I was nailing it back.

And I will never forget that moment in the cafe, as I felt that voice breathing out of the page. Not so much because of the voice's power, but because, quick as quick, I felt a rush of cold pleasure down the skin of my arms. A ripple of life.

That's a really strange thing to write, I thought. And then: I'm going to use it.

This essay originally appeared in Quill and Quire, December, 2013, The Last Word and on Shaena's website.

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I enjoyed the general story, of twin sisters with certain "powers" who each chose their own path -- one living a more alternative life, and the other a suburban housewife. Sittenfeld's entirely accurate description of the mundanity of mothering an infant hit home for me, but ultimately, I found the (suburban) narrator somewhat unlikeable and found myself wishing for more from the other twin. The First Rule Of Swimming - Courtney Angela Brkic A story about generations of a Croatian family that, although not massively mysterious, very prettily written and gently compelling, sketching out the characters in a way that makes you want to meet them. A lovely little read. *Life After Life - Kate Atkinson A great, slightly gimmicky book that recalls Butterfly Effect, Groundhog Day and Sliding Doors, without quite being any of them. Beautiful writing, thought-provoking twists, and a good look at how one decision or twist of fate can change not only circumstances, but whole personalities and histories. I found the ending slightly rushed after all the buildup and not as satisfying as I'd hoped, but the overall book makes up for that. Big Brother - Lionel Shriver This book about helping a sibling through obesity deals with an interesting, uncomfortable topic written about uncomfortably (the way only Shiver can), but lacked the kind of sharp perspective on current events I love from her. The book was based in part on the death of her brother in 2009 from obesity-related issues, so it's perfectly understandable the personal element could have made it difficult for her to be quite as journalistic as usual. The Wonder Bread Summer - Jessica Anya Blau This isn't a book, it's a screenplay, and a super fun one at that. So light and fluffy, this would make for a delicious, ridiculous beach read, or just a piece of sun-bleached escapist writing in the midst of winter. The Rest of Us - Jessica Lott Imagine reading the obituary of your long-lost (and much older) lover, only to discover him shopping a few weeks later, sparking a renewed relationship. That's the start of this sweetly sad love story that deals in the safety of inertia and the pain of longing for family. I was surprised to find myself crying at the end. The Last Policeman - Ben Winters Even though I'm not particularly inclined toward science fiction, I'm a sucker for apocalyptic books, and this one (the first in what will be a trilogy) delivered from both a great read and an "imagine that" perspective. The narrator is a policeman attempting to solve murders when there are thousands committing suicide in anticipation of a comet definitively approaching Earth, and follows his attempts to make sense of anything in the midst of this chaos. Really unique. *How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia - Mohsin Hamid Don't get this one confused with the wildly popular Rich Crazy Asians from this year -- Hamid's incredibly original storytelling abilities are worthy of their own hype. Structured as a self-help book that is anything but, this novel helps Westerners feel like they have the slightest grasp on how things work in Asia, but reveals that you can't ever really know unless you live it. Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way To Monogamy - Ophira Eisenberg Even though it concludes (it's right there in the title, so no spoilers) like a romantic comedy, I really liked the premise of this book when I heard about it: comedian's memoir about unapologetically sleeping around and the various trials and tribulations that ensue. And while it delivered a few hilarious tales, I found Eisenberg's anecdotes a bit too geared toward the punchline, instead of a more interesting, nuanced story, which I guess is what you get with a comedian. The Unknowns - Gabriel Roth Just when you think you know how this story is going to go (high school supernerd becomes Silicon Valley multimillionaire, keeps seeking girl of his dreams), it takes a complete (and not entirely welcome) twist that nonetheless keeps you reading on for more. It's an unexpectedly charming book, and particularly interesting in how it turns the nerd archetype on its head. *Maddadam - Margaret Atwood Despite not having read either of the previous books in this trilogy, I absolutely adored Atwood's tale of a post-apocalyptic world. Given its subject matter, the book was surprisingly accessible and amazingly (and terrifyingly) creative, along the lines of Neal Stephenson's best works. Ominously (and true to her reputation as a science fiction lover), Atwood notes everything described in the novel either already exists, or is in the process of being created somewhere. *The Woman Upstairs - Claire Messud One way I like to tell whether or not a book was worth my time is how long it stays with me, and The Woman Upstairs was in my thoughts for at least a week after I finished it. A rather specific take on what a woman's life can become when she's unmarried and open to experiences -- not to mention how various narratives can be interpreted differently by each of their players -- the book leaves you with a certain sense of dissatisfaction, and the desire to discuss it with anyone else who's read it. *Night Film - Marisha Peshl This is a mystery that keeps on giving, even as you get annoyed with it (and you will). Centred around the suicide (or murder?) of a reclusive film director's daughter, the book brings together three unlikely characters to investigate it, working through everything from her genius to her father's creepiness to get at the truth. It really felt like no book I'd read before, not least because of the clever use of web pages and other props scattered throughout the pages. A truly original story. Tenth of December - George Saunders This book made me feel like I'd been wasting my time reading any other short story collection that came before. Saunders truly manages to tell a lifetime in eight pages, over and over again in this deservedly hailed book. At equal points funny, horrifying and breathtaking (in the literal sense), you'll finish it in a flash and want to come back to it again and again. The Shining Girls - Lauren Beukes Are you able to resist a book whose main character can be described as "a time-travelling serial killer"? Because I certainly can't. It wasn't one of my favourite books of the year, perhaps because it was more gruesome than I expected and had some character elements that rang false, but as a thriller, it was addictively readable and worthwhile.

  • The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, Kristopher Jansma

    I'll say it right off the bat -- if you don't like books that are a bit weird, don't try this one out. But if you, like me, adore a bit of a twisted narrative, Jansma's book is a fantastic read that takes the truth for three characters and "slants" it, with the end result working equally well as one mixed up story or three individual tales.

  • The Unknowns, Gabriel Roth

    Just when you think you know how this story is going to go (high school supernerd becomes Silicon Valley multimillionaire, keeps seeking girl of his dreams), it takes a complete (and not entirely welcome) twist that nonetheless keeps you reading on for more. It's an unexpectedly charming book, and particularly interesting in how it turns the nerd archetype on its head.

  • The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud

    One way I like to tell whether or not a book was worth my time is how long it stays with me, and The Woman Upstairs was in my thoughts for at least a week after I finished it. A rather specific take on what a woman's life can become when she's unmarried and open to experiences -- not to mention how various narratives can be interpreted differently by each of their players -- the book leaves you with a certain sense of dissatisfaction, and the desire to discuss it with anyone else who's read it.

  • The Wonder Bread Summer, Jessica Anya Blau

    This isn't a book, it's a screenplay, and a super fun one at that. So light and fluffy, this would make for a delicious, ridiculous beach read, or just a piece of sun-bleached escapist writing in the midst of winter.

  • The World Without You, Joshua Henkin

    To like this book, you have to be interested in the characters, which I have to admit, I really wasn't. It focuses on a family who is gathered for the memorial of their brother who was killed in Iraq, and complicated by everything from the parents announcing a separation to the widow who's trying to move on with her life. It's an intriguing premise, but I found the people so unlikeable that I didn't care much how it all turned out.

  • True Believers, Kurt Andersen

    I wanted to love this book about a successful, wise woman revealing the details of her 1960s activism and why it would possibly lead her to giving up a Supreme Court nomination, and at times, I really did. But the way the narrative was structured -- a look back at life, a coming-to-terms with past transgressions -- made it feel like there were two very distinct characters, one the narrator in her youth, and the other the narrator in her old age. I couldn't quite get past that differentiation.

  • Where'd You Go Bernadette, Maria Semple

    This immensely readable book is perfect for a vacation or a weekend read alike. Told partially through emails (which are far more entertaining than the missives piling up in your inbox) and mostly through satire, this story tells of a family in Seattle. The various challenges the kid/wife/husband go through in order to get by in daily life (while coming to terms with speckled pasts) are a joy to behold, thanks to the clever writing and fun -- because why can't books be fun? -- plot.

  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo

    An original account of Mumbai slums, portrayed as a story, I know this book came under some criticism because of the way the author fashioned reality into fiction, but from a reader's perspective, it worked beautifully. Boo managed to tell the stories those World Vision ads try to, without coming across as gunning for sympathy -- just people trying to live within difficult circumstances

 

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