August 10th, 2011 § 12 comments

I never wrote about cancer when I was diagnosed.
I never wrote about my body before the surgeon cut into it.
I never wrote about chemo when I was going through it.
I never wrote about dying when I was most afraid.

This morning I was angry at myself. Why didn’t I write during these times? Why didn’t I capture the raw emotion as it was happening? Why did I let this emotional gold mine slip through my fingers?

First, of course, was the pain. When I was in physical pain, I couldn’t be analytical. I couldn’t be intelligent. I couldn’t even be upright. When that pain dulled, and I started to feel better, I didn’t want to be self-indulgent. I didn’t want to think about me anymore. When I felt well, I wanted to be with my family. I wanted to give my children everything I had when I had it. I didn’t want to take time away from them, sit in my office, and write.

So I waited.

What have I gained from waiting? By writing about past experiences, am I living in the past, dwelling on it, and anchoring myself to a difficult stage of my life?

No, I quickly thought. I’m not.

In fact, it is only now that I can look at the past four years clearly. Now that the pain of recovery has shifted I can see it for what it was— for what it is.

Only now can I put the past in perspective. But what does “having perspective” really mean?

Being in the right spot makes all of the objects in your vision align properly, in correct proportion to one another. If the perspective is “off” it means you’re not viewing it from the right place.

Without perspective, your point of view is literally wrong.

What’s changed? The objects you are looking at haven’t changed. Your stance relative to them has. And in looking at the same objects from a different place, you see them differently. When we put life experiences in perspective, we are doing the same thing. By taking a few steps back, putting some distance between us and our experiences, we are better observers, we are more accurate.

My point of view was wrong before. When I was ticking off the boxes of surgeries, procedures, and treatments I was “too close” to them in space and time. Had I written about them then, I would have remembered more details of conversations, dates, and my surroundings. But that’s not what I feel passionately about. I don’t write about what it’s like to go through these things as they happen.

Gene Weingarten writes, “A writer has to figure out what that piece is before she can begin to report her story. Only then can she know what questions to ask and what things to notice; only then will she see how to test her thesis and how to change it if it is wrong. That’s what nonfiction storytelling is about. It is not enough for you to observe and report: You must also think.”

I love to write about what life is like after these events happen– after you live through them and come out the other side… how you go on after, and what it feels like when you look back.

I can see this part more clearly because my emotions are separated from the pain, from the chaos, from the shock.

For a moment I regretted that I didn’t write about all of this while it was happening. Now I know it was the right thing to do for me. Only now, with a bit of distance, can I put it all in perspective.1

  1. Other writers may have different motivations, different goals for their writing. In many cases documenting the events as they are happening is important. Writer Dani Shapiro says, of memoir, “It’s not what happened; it’s how you tell what happened.” There is a difference between journaling and writing memoir. Figuring out where you, as the writer, are vis-a-vis your subject matter is crucial– especially when that subject matter is yourself. []

§ 12 Responses to Perspective"

  • Erika Robuck says:

    Ernest Hemingway said you can never write a place until you leave. I think you’re onto something.

  • Yes, it’s true. Perspective IS important in the telling of a story, in having a meaningful interrelationship with the ideas, experiences, etc. Many times I, too, love to write – and read – about what the moments life are like after they have been lived.

  • avidreader78 says:

    I think that your writing after the fact is inspiring and let’s those who are currently going through it that there is hope! I’ve never been through this and hopefully never will but I hope that if I did I would want to read blogs such as yours that inspire a will to keep going rather than a blog that is going through the exact same pain at the same time. Imd need your voice…of hope!

  • Dee says:

    beautifully put. I never wrote about infertility until we adopted our son (I’m not equating cancer with infertility) so I understand completely being wrapped up in the emotions of it

  • Marsi White says:

    Hi, Lisa. As someone who is writing through their experience, I understand your perspective. For me, it all goes back to what Was told to me in my very first YSC support group meeting: No decision that I make for myself can ever be wrong. I go back to this statement often and try to never think about the “what if’s”. Love the entry.

  • I started blogging when I was wrapped up in infertility, and it was partly to connect and compare notes with others, and partly to release the emotions that I had no other way to express (besides therapy, which I started later). When I look back at the writing, I’m struck by how raw it is–I don’t write that way anymore (when I write at all).

    But I think that’s a very different kind of writing. In Wiengarten’s terms, I wasn’t reporting the story–I was living it.

  • Lisa,

    I LOVE this posting, which really resonated with me. No two writers are the same. While some write a lot as they are going through the trauma, others have to let it sit a bit before writing. Like you, I need time to process and then write a lot. I started blogging about breast cancer and self-advocacy eight years after chemo and about three years after a preventive double mastectomy with reconstruction.

    Keep writing!!

  • denise says:

    Although my life experiences are different than yours, I have felt that same pang, that same regret. And now, I realize, that I would put my current perspective of those events into my writing even if I’d recorded the exact emotions and details.

    Especially after learning from Dani, I feel confident the memoir I write now would differ from the ‘same’ memoir that I would write in 10 years.


  • nita says:

    Absolutely waid. When my husband was diagnosed some suggested I write about it, “because it could help others.” Well, I’m sorry, but at the time he was the only person I was concerned with helping, “others” could just wait, or get help from someone else. Selfish, yes, but also, I couldn’t write about it, what I wrote wouldn’t help anyone. She also thought I’d need to write to remember. I told her, “When this is over, I won’t want to remember. IF he doesn’t surviive, I won’t forget, and when he’s better, I won’t care.” Still haven’t written about that time. Don’t know if I will.

  • Lisa,
    I did keep a journal while going through cancer treatment. Now I wish I had been a bit more thorough, but as you said it’s tough to do in the moment. I like to write from the “other side” of cancer too. I am more of a “mulling it over” kind of person anyway so this works well for many reasons.

    This is a terrific post. Life is really all about perspective isn’t it?

  • Becky says:

    Yes. Exactly. It helps so much to look back and try to gain understanding… not to re-live or attempt to change the unchangeable. Thank you Lisa — you always know what to say… whether you know it or not.

  • kb says:

    I know it sounds morbid but I can’t remember a time in my life when things weren’t happening to me (medically). And I was always writing them down. So it’s hard to gain perspective or look for that ever-elusive ‘meaning’, because I haven’t had time to catch my breath.

    But I have kept writing. (Much to everyone’s dismay 😉

    Great post.

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