Writing Out the Storm

Reading and Writing Your Way Through Serious Illness or Injury

Barbara Abercrombie

St. Martin's Griffin


I’m in a waiting room surrounded by other women. A Muzak version of “People Will Say We’re in Love” is playing. A woman in her late seventies sitting across from me with two friends is humming along with the music. A younger woman sitting next to me, wearing a scarf that covers her bald head, is writing Valentine cards. The walls of the waiting room are painted lavender. Sunlight spills through the open windows, and there’s the smell of grass being mowed. It’s oddly pleasant and peaceful here in this room filled with women of all ages, even though nobody’s here for a good time.
The older woman’s name is called, and when she’s gone her two friends discuss her cooking. Apparently she’s an excellent cook but doesn’t have a grip on meatballs. Too dry, is the verdict. Somebody else they know puts two eggs in for one pound of meat. “It’s gotta be soft like sausage soft,” says one friend. “You have to work and work the meat. Put in seasonings. I only like Sylvia’s meatballs.”
I write all this down in a very small notebook. If I keep writing, I won’t have to think about why I’m here.
My name is finally called. I’m here every year for an annual mammogram, I know the drill; no perfume or deodorant, sweater and bra off, jonny gown on and open in the front, my breast kneaded into position (those meatballs come to mind), then flattened rather alarmingly under a transparent vise. I hold my breath as the machine whirs.
Afterward I point out the lump next to my left nipple to the technician. I’m expecting a shrug, perhaps recognition of my hypochondria. Or even praise for being so alert, such a good girl for coming in right away to have it checked, even though this tiny lump that R. found yesterday is absolutely nothing. Instead the technician’s face is serious as she feels the lump. Then she puts a little tag on it, kind of a breast Post-it, and schedules me for an immediate ultrasound exam.
I want to say: Look, I’m getting married in six months, I teach two courses and have a lot of students, I’m writing a novel. A major medical problem is not part of the plan. I really don’t have time for this.
But of course I must have the ultrasound exam, and as I wait for it, sitting in another room still wearing the jonny gown top with the Post-it on my breast, I think how quickly life can swerve. Suddenly I’m being treated like a patient. I ran four miles this morning, I spent last weekend making love to my fiancé in Palm Springs, I’m teaching a three-hour class tonight. I’m not somebody who sits around in a damn jonny gown, a body part tagged, waiting for doctors. But I do wait, and I do have the exam. And then a doctor I’ve never met before tells me I need to see a breast surgeon right away to have the lump surgically removed and biopsied.

Something happens, and then the world spins on a new axis.

I am standing outside a shopping mall on a shimmering fall day in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, the name of the town portentous. I bend down to pick up my child, but the bending never finishes, breaks instead into spitting lights of pain that spread over a pool of half-consciousness. A tearing is felt—almost heard—within the thickness of flesh, moving in seconds across the base of the spine. The body instantly announces: This is an important event, this is an event you will never forget. I can’t get up. The asphalt is icy. Somehow I am wedged into a car. The emergency room regrets not knowing what to do.
—Suzanne E. Berger, Horizontal Woman

Smith sees I’m awake and tells me help is on the way. He speaks calmly, even cheerily. His look, as he sits on his rock with his cane drawn across his lap, is one of pleasant commiseration: Ain’t the two of us just had the shittiest luck? it says. He and Bullet left the campground where they were staying, he later tells an investigator, because he wanted “some of those Marzes-bars they have up to the store.” When I hear this little detail some weeks later, it occurs to me that I have nearly been killed by a character right out of one of my own novels. It’s almost funny.
—Stephen King, On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft

The doctors’ faces were a professional grim … . As they examined me the doctors exchanged, with their eyes, their verification of swollen lymph nodes in my neck. They talked their serious talk in the hall, and I could hear them when my children’s chattering permitted me. I could hear the word tumor.
I was full of plans for the future, like a tree of leaves. They fell off the branches at once, not blowing away, but laid at the root.
—Laurel Lee, Walking Through the Fire, A Hospital Journal

Whether you call it writing in a journal or keeping a notebook, buy yourself a beautiful book with blank pages, or buy a spiral notebook at the supermarket for $1.98. Or start a new file in your computer. There is no right or wrong way to do this. Just begin.
Start with the words something happens. See where they lead. Maybe you’ll write about an accident or the start of an illness, the moment when your life spun on a new axis, when your plans began to fall like leaves. Or maybe you’ll start with the description of a waiting room, the details of the moment, what you see and smell, hear and touch.
Ray Bradbury says the words he’d post in red letters ten feet high to encourage creativity are: WORK. RELAXATION. DON’T THINK.
If you keep your pen moving so fast you can’t think, you’ll begin to move out of your own way and connect to a deeper part of yourself. You’ll start writing about things you didn’t even know that you knew or remembered. Trust the deep well of memory and knowledge and feeling you have. Write so fast, you won’t hear that voice in your head carping that this is too boring to write about, too sentimental, too personal. The details of your life are valuable. Relax. Don’t think. Keep writing.
WRITING OUT THE STORM. Copyright © 2002 by Barbara Abercrombie. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.