In these long months of social isolation, I have taken more refuge in my morning writing practice than usual, spending the first hours of the early morning alone with my notebook, a thermos of coffee, and my small dog at my feet. It’s a practice that not only allows me to plumb the depths of my own thoughts and emotions, but it also alleviates the bouts of anxiety I’ve felt during these long months of a pandemic. Meanwhile, my husband has taken to immersing himself in poetry—a new endeavor for him–studiously making his way through my poetry collection, over 100 volumes accumulated over many years. He is not only inspired but obviously finds solace his morning reading routine. And it’s probably no surprise that in the past several months, I’ve been asked to facilitate many more virtual writing workshops with several cancer organizations. COVID-19 has heightened the need for ways to interact socially and, for many, use journaling or a writing group to help express the anxieties, fears and loneliness of living with cancer – heightened in a time of this pandemic.
Baking, creative cuisine, binging on British mysteries, and reading have been the other endeavors I’ve exploited during these long months of social isolation, and not surprisingly, a stack of novels sits on my nightstand. I’ve found it difficult to read nonfiction: memoirs of suffering and hardship especially. But, quite by accident, I picked up what I thought was a novel and instead, discovered a powerful and compelling memoir of one young adult cancer survivor: Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of A Life Interrupted, by journalist and cancer survivor, Suleika Jaoud. Jaoud was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia at the age of 22 and, for the next three and a half years, much of her life was spent in and out of hospital. After years of treatments, her life was ultimately saved by a bone marrow transplant, and at age 26, she was declared “in remission.” Whether you’re a young or older adult living with cancer, Jaoud’s story is, at times, terrifying, but searingly honest and poignant. Before she was diagnosed with leukemia, her dream was of becoming a war correspondent. Little did she know that the “war” she would be reporting on was her own life and death struggle with cancer. It was during the many months of treatments that she returned to something she had always “leaned on in difficult times: keeping a journal.”
“Illness had turned my gaze inward,” Jaoud wrote. “As a patient you are constantly asked to investigate the body, to report on yourself, and to narrate your feelings…I understood now why so many writers and artists, while in the thick of illness, became memoirists. It provided a sense of control, a way to reshare your circumstances on your own terms, in your own words.”
Her survival became her creative act, her journaling allowed her a new way to communicate and imagine herself beyond the confines of her hospital room. Quoting British author, Jeannette Winterson, she wrote “literature offers—a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.” Not only a place of discovery, but as we have learned from other patients, writers and psychologists, writing can help us heal. Writing through her illness as Jaoud did ultimately led her to the New York Times and an interactive column, “Life Interrupted, where she chronicled her experience as a young adult living with cancer.
Writing and poetry were part of the healing process for former US poet laureate, Ted Kooser. He was diagnosed and treated for oral cancer in 1998, and began writing again during his recovery. For the entire time of his cancer treatment, he had not written at all, describing himself as “depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself… During the period when I was in surgery and going through radiation, I really didn’t do any writing.
As his radiation treatments were ending, Kooser began a routine of early morning walks through the Nebraska countryside in an effort to regain his physical strength and stamina. On one November morning, he surprised himself by “trying my hand at a poem.” From that point on, his morning walks became the inspiration for a series of short poems—only a very few mentioning cancer, most inspired by what he noticed while he walked. He began pasting the short poems on the backs of postcards and sent them to his friend, novelist and poet, Jim Harrison. (NPR interview, PBS News Hour, Oct. 21, 2004). The postcards ultimately became a book of poetry: Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, published in 2001, one in which we see the author’s return to his craft and his love of life.
Just as Jaoud found sanctuary and structure in her journaling, Kooser found his poetry writing helped him regain a sense of control, saying, “It was very important for me to see something from each day that I could do something with and find some order in, because I was surrounded by medical chaos or health chaos of some kind.”
Some time ago, a member of one of my past cancer writing groups sent me a note. Although in remission, she lives with the knowledge that her cancer is a relentless type, but she finds solace in writing. She is more aware than ever before that “life is short,” and that she—as we all do—needs to be reminded not to waste it nor be consumed by things that do nothing to help us feel fulfilled and happy. I thought about her this morning as I began writing, recalling the advice of writer, Annie Dillard, someone Jaoud also referred to in her book. Dillard advice to writers was: “Write as if you were dying. We are on terminal patients on this earth; the story is not “if” but “when” death appears in the plot line.”
Dillard’s advice reminds me of the final line in Jim Harrison’s poem, “Larsen’s Holstein Bull,” “death steals everything but our stories.” Writing is not only healing, but a way to have voice, to discover insight, meaning and creativity, to share stories of not only struggle, but life and healing that touch others’ lives, helping overcome the isolation and loneliness that often accompanies illness and suffering. It’s why I write, and why I continue to lead writing workshops for those living with cancer.
- What has helped sustain you in these difficult times?
- If you have used writing as a way of healing, how has it helped you?
- Have you found others’ words meaningful, whether poetry or memoir? Which ones and why?
- For anyone wishing to write out of difficult times, Suleika Jaoud also offers an online site, The Isolation Journals, which features many different creativity prompts. https://www.theisolationjournals.com/