"I have been writing on and off for at least twenty-five, maybe thirty years, and I would call myself an autobiographical writer. I’ve also wanted to write about my life, but have always found so much of what I went through difficult to write about. I have always been looking for a way to frame my writing so that I could write from it more objectively instead of emotionally. And I was reading a lot of David Sedaris. I really love his writing and his wry sense of humor.
Last year I was diagnosed with an inoperable form of cancer. My children, particularly my youngest son, and my husband asked me to write my memoir for them.
I just didn’t know how to approach it because now things were even more emotional. But, I woke up one day with a gift from the universe that said, “Why not call it My Life as Compost?” And from that perspective, I was able to frame a memoir because I have always believed that our lives are the rich loam of soil that we give each other and that we don’t have to say anything more than what happened to us. Just to give that as a gift to other people, and they can take from that what they will.
So, that’s what I did, and it was like a gift from the universe because it helps me frame things in kind of a humorous way that sometimes weren’t so humorous. It gave me that distance I needed."
What’s Your Writing Process?
"It actually feels very empowering to get to that question in terms of self-publishing, because I send each chapter to a list of about sixty people and I’ll get immediate feedback from fifteen to twenty people on a regular basis. It really gives me the juice to keep going forward because people tell me how excited they are, tell me they had a similar experience, we share ideas and thoughts. I think that as a writer that’s what you want—that immediate feedback that makes you feel like that’s why you’re writing. You know you have an audience and they’re writing back to you.
I’d say my process currently has been very organic and stream of consciousness. I think because I had written for a lot of years as a journal writer and a non-fiction writer, doing personal essays but also poetry—there was a level of discipline in there that I learned (that I wasn’t even aware of) that allows me to take my stream of consciousness and then rework it.
I usually start in the morning after I wake up. I usually say a meditation or prayer before I go to sleep at night to give me the inspiration for what I need for the next chapter. I usually wake up with that chapter in my mind. And I’m working it on some level. And then I sit down at the computer and then usually for four or five hours will write something out.
So each chapter has been around 4,500 words and it takes me about a week to write that. I’m also married to a writer who’s been my copy editor! I’m really fortunate."
Any tips for other aspiring memoir writers?
Well, I’ve been doing this in a very unorthodox way. It truly is coming out of me. I’ve never had a writing experience quite like this. Often, if I wrote something—particularly poetry—I’d write a rough draft, edit, edit, and edit it. And make notes! But this, this is just flowing out. It is.
I really feel it’s been a gift and it might be because of my heightened state of life at the moment. Knowing that things…I have no idea how long that things will go on. But, it’s just allowed me to write and I don’t take notes and maybe that’s a convenience in and of itself. Free flowing and letting it out. And I go back and edit it. I just don’t…I don’t restrict myself in any way with what I want to write.
How are your children responding to your story?
I have a forty-three-year-old son who has two sons himself (my grandchildren). And I have a forty-year-old daughter and a thirty-six-year-old son; neither of them have children. But they’ve all been very supportive, except that the forty-three-year-old (who is a well-tattooed, hard-driving house builder)—he doesn’t want to read anything that I write about sex in my memoir. (Laughter) So that’s actually a very funny thing.
The other two don’t really care and they encourage me to write what comes to mind. But I did a very explicit chapter on my sexual exploits when I turned fifty because I thought it was really important. I got married at nineteen and I never really had relationships outside of my marriage until I was fifty, so I kind of went crazy! What you do when you’re seventeen…but when I did it at fifty, it didn’t look as pretty.
So I talked to them about that, and my oldest son will just avoid that chapter because of course his mother never had sex. That’s how he likes to keep it.
And then when I do write something that I think is important—(my youngest son did cross-dress at a time when it was not a popular thing to do, and it brought us very close to each other, and I thought it was a really important thing to write about), I did let him read the chapter and comment before I sent it out. He’s still a little uncomfortable with it, but I told him I think it happens to a lot of people and that it’s a very healing thing to be that honest and forthright to put that out there, and he 90% agrees with me.
So I’m trying to keep them in the loop of what I’m writing. And I try to keep my writing honest. And I try not to write the sensationalism or anger or emotion but to simply try to really capture who I am.
What do you want to tell us about the power of writing for healing?
Well, the first thing that I would say about the power of writing is that I’ve told a lot of [the] stories to friends and family members, and they’ve heard them before. So has my husband. But, once I wrote them down, they had a completely different affect on people. It was almost like they heard them for the first time.
So I’ve really become aware of how spoken word and spoken stories have one ability to share experiences, but when you write it down and you’re seriously looking to give a gift of remembrance to your family or to put it out there in the public view the written word is even more powerful, not only because you have something to hold on to and go back to, but [also because] somehow there’s an expression that you get out that way that you can’t by just telling a story.
As far as the medical establishment goes, I think it’s been interesting that the psychiatrist that I go to once a month has told me she and the palliative care doctor are avid readers of my blog, and I think they want to do something, perhaps with me or Dana-Farber, using memoir as a tool for other people going through what I’m going through. But, I would say—as a western culture, particularly in the United States, we don’t have a good handle on how to talk about death and dying. And that’s where I feel the most neglected in terms of how to connect with other people. It’s a very isolating place to be.
I think what we need to do as a society, as a culture, is to see what’s really happening and give us some choices and control over our lives. I think the dialog is growing. I just read in the New York Times this morning that Canada just passed legislation for dignity with death. I’m hoping that we can see that for human beings death with dignity is not just a scary way to transition, but give us care and sensitivity.
How has writing helped you reclaim yourself?
Well, it has been a very deep and, on some levels, spiritual process. I’ll just share with everyone...last year when I was diagnosed, I was totally healthy. I really hadn’t had any major health issues, and I went in to see my gynecologist and found out that I had a large inoperable tumor. And that there was very little that they could do for me.
It was a sucker punch in my gut—and everything that I had thought [about] and felt left me, and I started slowly breaking down until I had a full breakdown. And I didn’t really know how to reclaim myself. I had to go to the psych ward for three weeks. I had to figure out how to live with a terminal diagnosis, and then in order to get out of the psych ward I had to go through ECT treatments, and it was pretty hard for me to digest that I had to do that. I slowly but surely got my footing again and started writing.
I literally was inspired by waking up with this idea, which was probably six months after I came out of hospitalization. And I began to see it as a gift that I could leave my family, because that’s what they asked me for. And, as part of that, I really had no ability to deal with the cancer head-on. I was angry, I was hostile at the professional world that I was connected to: psychologists and psychiatrists and oncology doctors really…don’t have a big dialog with patients when you get to this level of fear and [this] sort of dysfunction.
And so the writing helps. It started helping me. I had written a journal before when my first husband had a stroke and that’s what got me through the days and nights as I cared for him, and through the fear of loss around our life and our relationship. This time it did the same thing only in a more critical way, because now I have less control of my life and it gave me some control to be able to tell people my story.
And so my desire is to really live, just like compost, and put myself out there warts and all. To put my life out there to have the meaning of giving other people a sense of support and a story that can perhaps move somebody else and support them if they are going through a difficult time.