What Is It Like For You?

I’ll tell you what it’s like for me. It is an obsession. It is an itch that never goes away, a constant refrain that never leaves me alone, not even for a moment.

You think I like writing? Not at all. I just can’t help myself. Words whisper themselves to me in my head and they won’t leave me alone until I sit down with my computer and write them out.

If that sounds like fun to you, you haven’t seen the kinds of things that force themselves out through me. Most of it is utter crap. 80% of it never sees the light of day. There are thirty drafts sitting in the “posts” folder of this blog that will never ever be published, and three times that many in a folder on my computer, and that’s only for this blog.

I wrote a book in six months and spent the next eleven fixing the crap I made, deleting a good third of it and replacing another third with new words.

Writing is painful. I cry a lot when I’m writing. I cry for my characters, for the things I make them do against my will. It is a terrible place to live, to be constantly punishing people you love and feeling that you have no choice but knowing that you do have a choice and yet choosing to keep hurting them. Sometimes I try to undo what I’ve done but I rarely succeed.

Writing is drudgery. It’s hours in front of the screen typing out words you know you will later delete but doing it because it’s the only way to get past the crap to the good stuff, and if you stop now you may never start again. And you can’t not write.

Writing is self-punishment. It’s self-doubt and insecurity and thinking “I’m completely hopeless. This is crap. Why am I doing this?”

Writing is vulnerability, it’s amphibious permeable skin, letting all of everything through to the soft reception of your beating heart.

Some days I wish I were a psychopath. Not a sadistic one, just one who does not feel the feelings of others. I want to close off my soft heart and feel only what I feel, completely unaffected by the hearts of others. This is an impossible dream. It is why I must be alone in the woods sometimes. Trees do not intrude their feelings upon me. Rather, they seem to absorb my emotions into themselves to evaporate into the atmosphere. They siphon off the excess and leave me at peace.

Writing means paying attention, listening, and feeling. Feeling hurts.

No. I do not like writing.

I like having written.

And I think maybe that’s where the compulsion comes from. It’s a hit of dopamine like no other, having written. It’s like I imagine a heroin addiction is. You know it’s going to be bad, you know that getting the resources together to get that next hit is going to be painful hard work. You don’t want to do it but it itches you until you can’t stand it and you do it because ultimately, in the end, there’s that amazing hit.

“I did that! It’s actually quite good! I am great! People like me! I matter!”

And for a while it is good. Until the itch begins again. The edge of the high wears off and you find yourself spiraling toward the circling singularity at the edge of the black hole of addiction and you… can’t… stop… yourself.

And at the center of that black hole is the fundamental belief that you’re not good enough as you are and so you must constantly prove yourself. You must be more in order to be worthy. And that is a problem, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be great to feel sure, to accept oneself as whole, as complete, as ENOUGH?

Well, yeah. Except maybe then you wouldn’t be compelled to write. And that would be a problem.

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How My Friend Jill Kicked Cancer’s Butt

When I discovered I was pregnant with my second child, one of the first people I shared the news with was Jill. Jill had been there for the birth of my first son. She held my hand while I roared, and whispered encouragingly into my ear while I sobbed between contractions.

Now I asked her, “Will you be there for this birth too?”

“I would be honored!” she said.

Sometime during my second trimester, Jill called me.

“Will you watch the girls for me tomorrow afternoon? I have a doctor’s appointment.”

I stood in her living room that next afternoon, assuring her that everything would be fine.

“The doctor says she can’t be sure, but she thinks it’s cancer.”

Everything will be fine, I assured her.

Jill was never one who could be beaten by cancer. She was too full of life, too passionate a mother, too beautiful a person. She had too many people on her side, and too much to live for. Besides, her daughters needed her.

The doctor, it turned out, was right. Jill had breast cancer.

Jill didn’t make it to my second son’s baby shower, but not for the reason you might think. Remember, Jill won. At the time of my son’s shower, she was in Hawaii, living on the beach, where she’d always wanted to go someday. She sent back pictures:

Playing in rock pools on a sun-drenched shoreline, her girls gathered about her.
Standing with the wind in her hair, her daughter’s arms around her leg.
Reclining in the beautiful airy home they rented by the ocean.

When Jill grew too weak to walk–cancer treatments are brutal–her husband carried her to the beach in his arms every day.

By the time my son was born, Jill was in Mexico, warrioring on against cancer with an exciting new treatment. She would win, of course, and I was not worried. She sent a gift, a bowl with the Chinese characters for “birthing.” Her mother had made it. Our friends and I sat in a circle and admired the bowl and held our beautiful friend in our hearts, and she flew to California for another round of life-saving treatments.

Research shows that people with a positive attitude have better outcomes in the case of most illness, and cancer is no exception. Miraculous recoveries are the realm almost exclusively of the cheerful-minded. Jill was cheerful.

Reports began to trickle back from the West coast: Jill no longer cared for phone calls, as it took too much energy. Jill could no longer talk at all. Jill was on life support.

Then one day, Jill and her husband asked the doctors what her odds of survival were. The answer was grim. Jill asked to see her daughters one last time, and then to have the life support removed.

After the machines were turned off, Jill asked for a piece of paper and a pencil. She wrote something on it and then held her husband’s hand as she drew her last breaths. Then she died.

Cancer is brutal. Cancer doesn’t care who you are or how many people love you or whether you are needed here. It doesn’t care if you go to the beach or go to bed. The best doctors in the world, the cleanest diet, and the most loving family are not always enough to keep a person alive.

Sometimes the best people die.

But some people won’t let that defeat them. After Jill died, news traveled quickly. I was standing on the stairs of our new house when the call came. I’d just put my new baby boy to bed. I stood there, and then I sat there, and I listened and I couldn’t believe it. Not Jill. Jill was gone.

Over the coming days, more news trickled back. How the five-year-old daughter took the news. How the husband was doing. What Jill had written on that slip of paper while drawing her last breaths.

Her last words?

“It’s not the number of the days,” said that slip of paper, “but the quality of the life.”

I told you Jill kicked cancer’s butt.