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.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST: