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.