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
- 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. [↩]