I’m in a guest house in Ludington, a block from our stunning Lake Michigan, where I came to lead a workshop, visit high school classes, and work for a few days undisturbed. I’m glad to be alone. I feel guilty at often wanting to be alone. Am I selfish? Is the work I’m doing isolating me? How much should I/do I want it to isolate me? I was asked to talk about this. Okay, here goes:
I am sure that no one who ever did extraordinary work has had a balanced life. No one whose work we look to as models ever spent much time thinking about should. Van Gogh, Beethoven, Rilke, Einstein, did they bother with such questions?
What about those of us who slog away day after day, knowing we won’t shake the universe but wanting to do the best work possible in our lifetime, who feel somehow that it matters that we do this even if we die in obscurity? First of all, I doubt that we have any choice in this. I’ve heard people say, “I had thought about becoming a writer, but I made the choice to become [fill in the blank] instead.” Choice? I don’t buy it. Unless we’re forced otherwise, we move in the direction our internal compass takes us. That compass may shift over the years, probably will. What is true north now may be southwest later.
Do you sometimes say to yourself, “You need to live in the real world. You need to quit hiding out in your study pounding the keys and do some concrete good in the world, feed the hungry, or build houses for Habitat for Humanity? If the urge becomes strong, then I suspect we need to do more of that. I don’t know. I have no answer except to say this is a persistent question for all artists, I’d guess. What SHOULD I do?
The trouble with SHOULD is that it’s a leap ahead of where I presently am. I’ve spent so much of my life with the shoulds. They are lousy companions. They make me waffle and waste energy; they weigh too much, they bend my back. And furthermore, they’re liars. They tell me what I think other people might be thinking. How do I know what they’re thinking? And how do I know they’re right? Better to look at where I am at this moment and try to discern what I’m pulled toward.
Looking back, I wish all sorts of things. I have serious regrets. I wish I’d spent more energy in other ways, given my attention to other things. But that was then. I was doing the best I could then, according to my lights. I didn’t see. I didn’t see enough.
Anyway, who is this supposedly solid being who I imagine is the same now as she was then?
The writing—or whatever art—if it’s genuine, comes from a sincere desire to do it, to make it. When that peters out, I’d say we need to quit and do something else. But if it’s still burning strong, we’ll find a way to make it happen even if we’re having to stay up half the night to do it and leave for a job at seven the next morning. I suspect we’ll always wonder, is this worth it? Is my work good enough to spend my precious life this way? Who will care that I’ve given my life to this? Am I shirking real responsibilities?
That’s probably the sharp edge of the work, what gives it energy and power—the uncertainty it comes from. The off-base quality, the stumbling. Don’t you think?
I’m looking forward to the book launch at the Health and Wellness Suite of the Cowell Cancer Center in Traverse City on October 27th. Please come if you can and buy the book! Give it to a friend who has cancer, who’s had cancer, whose loved one has cancer. And at the same time, you’ll be helping support this wonderful facility for cancer patients.
I don’t at all think of this as a local project. I could have donated the book to the American Cancer Society. But I wanted to make the donation specific. Any writer knows that the more specific our images, the more universal the application.
I’m feeling that I’ve been out of touch. I’ve been working hard to get My Wobbly Bicycle: Cancer and the Creative Life ready for publication. Of course I’ve been thinking about how I posted faithfully every week back then, how I kept you up to date with my treatment, my anguishes, my life in general. Naturally that was for me as much as for you. We were/are in this together, this life with its ups and downs that have no end until they do. How interesting it is to go back over that year, to look at what I wrote, to ask myself if I’d write the same thing now! No, of course not. Three years have passed. I have some perspective. Yet what I wrote then seems utterly, completely, to-the-bone accurate.
What I said then, I’d say now. I guess that’s what I mean by accurate, although all I can vouch for is that it seemed I was telling the truth as I saw it. I didn’t know if I’d live or die. Of course I still don’t know, but it’s interesting to me to watch the shifts, gradual as they are. I feel once again that I “own” myself, that I’m not an object to be poked, sedated, mapped, irradiated. I think of old people—I mean much older than me!—and how often they gradually lose the sense of their own body, as it becomes frail and needs more and more external help to keep going. If we’ve had a strong sense of our ability to take care of things, that’s a hard pill to swallow. Even now, there’s a big rock the grandchildren put in the rowboat as ballast, and it’s too heavy for me to lift out, now that they’re gone. And the dock needs spray-washing and re-sealing. Just don’t have the energy for it, so we’re waiting until our handyman has time to get to it.
As I read back through My Wobbly Bicycle: Cancer and the Creative Life, I am once again intensely close to the me I felt like then, trying to figure how to go on doing my work when I don’t feel well, when I don’t even know if I have a future, when I feel a lot like an object. When a lot of the time I just want to cry. I realize again how much reading mattered to me, how much the printed page pulled me out of the narrows—not in the sense of escape, but in the sense of expansion.
And also, of course, I’m so deeply aware of the love and support that came to me in so many forms. I am still awed by that.
I’m giving the book to Traverse City’s Cowell Family Cancer Center’s Health and Wellness Suite. All proceeds from sales of the book will go directly there. It’s a quite remarkable area of the Cancer Center. If you have cancer, or if you’re family of someone who has cancer, or an employee of the Center, you can go there for all sorts of meditation classes, yoga, massage, acupuncture, book groups, and talks. There are even wandering musicians throughout the building. I almost choke up when I think of the distance we’ve traveled in understanding that body and mind aren’t separate. I do choke up when I imagine the help this will be for cancer patients. I’m hoping my book will also be some help.
We’re planning a launch party at the Cowell Family Cancer Center on Oct. 27. If you’re local, please put that date on your calendar. Everyone is invited. I’ll talk a bit, read a little from the book and we’ll have freshly minted copies there for sale. I’ll post more about this later—time, directions, etc.
Back to work. We’re still trying to figure which photos will work in the book. Wish I’d taken more and better ones back then. Then I have to figure where they’ll go. Then the dreaded proofreading. You’d think as much editing as I’ve done, I could handle that with ease. But I’m really not good at it. A ruler along the lines helps, plus, I’m hoping, the help of my beloved editor-husband. Please.