As a professor I write a lot. Until recently, however, I’ve never felt like a real writer. I attended conferences and listened to others talk about how they have all these books in them but not enough time to write them. I’d leave those conferences thinking about how I didn’t have any books in me waiting to be written.
After being diagnosed with stage IV cancer, I wrote updates on my condition for family and friends on a Caring Bridge site. Many readers of my site urged me to write about my experience in venues beyond Caring Bridge. Once again, I wasn’t sure I had a book in me; I often had a hard time putting into words what living with cancer felt like, looked like, tasted like. I wrote for academic venues; I was dubious about whether I could write in a more personal way. But I had taken my first few steps of writing in the first person on Caring Bridge, and encouragement from others to keep writing stayed with me.
Almost a year after my diagnosis, I heard conversation that changed my perspective on writing. I was listening to Mary Karr talk about her new book, Lit: A Memoir, on NPR. The interviewer, Kerri Miller, asked how Karr avoids offending others who appear in her writings. Karr said that those who show up in her memoirs get to read the scenes in which they appear before the book is published. Miller wondered what Karr does when she is asked to change what she’s written about her ex-husband or her mother. Karr told Miller that so far, she’d never been asked to change anything. Not buying this response, Miller pushed Karr. Really? How could that be?
Karr told Miller that she thought she hadn’t yet been asked to make changes in her depictions of others because it was she—and not the others in the story—who came out looking the worst in the end.
That an interview with Mary Karr about how she’s hardest on herself in her memoirs would lead me to start writing about my own life with cancer may seem a bit odd. After all, in Lit, Karr chronicles her descent into alcoholism and madness, the unraveling of her marriage, and her woeful parenting of her toddler son. What about her story resonated with mine?
Hearing Mary Karr frame memoir-writing as her story, exposing primarily her own botched attempts to get things right, was a gift to me. It created a space for me to think differently about my story and my less-than-perfect attempts at living with—and talking about—a life-threatening diagnosis.
The day after I heard the Karr interview, I woke up early, startled by the clarity of the words floating around in my head: before my eyes I saw the title for my memoir and a list of titles for all of its chapters.
I got out of bed and started writing. Karr’s perspective on writing memoir helped me realize that I could write my version of this new life with cancer, warts and all. That it is precisely in exposing the imperfections and the struggles of this new life that gives this story its power. Karr’s descriptions of her own writing granted me permission to tell my own story and not to worry about telling anyone else’s version of my life with stage IV cancer.
Thanks to Kerri Miller and Mary Karr’s conversation, I realized I had a book in me.