Posts Tagged ‘cancer survival’

Revise Yourself!

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016

Every time I revise for an agent or editor, I learn something about myself as a writer. Whether it’s a tendency toward overstatement or a habit of going too light on action and description in my dialogue scenes, a professional’s comments always help me hone my ability to convey my stories on the page.

My latest revision was no different. In challenging me to add more “side streets and alleys” to my novel and to delve deeper into my characters’ emotions, my agent drew my attention to the fact that I tend to write very tight and spare. I put out what some people call “skeletal drafts” – the bare bones of a story which I later need to flesh out. The problem is, I have trouble putting enough flesh on those bones. In some ways a tight manuscript can be good, but it can also leave readers feeling rushed through the plot and cheated of fully connecting with the characters.

In pondering my agent’s challenge, I realized that my propensity toward “fast and tight” relates not only to my writing, but to the way I live my life. I’m one of those people who is always in a hurry. Perhaps because my childhood experience of cancer left me with an awareness of my mortality, time feels like it’s at a premium, and as a result I tend to rush through both tasks and interactions in my urgency to move on to the next thing. Even in my teaching, I tend to value flow over depth. I’m afraid that if I go on too long, people will get bored. If you want proof, take a look at my posts on this blog, few of which are over 400 words. Up till now, my motto has been “Get to the point.”

My agent has made my see that in my writing – and in my life – I can afford to slow down and take the time to explore each moment, each interaction, to it’s fullest. I don’t have to worry that my readers will get bored if I elaborate on a characters thoughts and feelings, and in the course of a day, I can risk a few moments of downtime or a lull in a conversation.

And maybe someday, I’ll even take the ultimate risk and write a 500-word blog post.

What have you learned in revisions that you can apply to your life?

Telling the story that’s closest to home

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012

Steven (my husband) and I have decided to officially declare our performance at the Ballard Writer’s Jam last night a smashing success! We told the story of how cancer brought us together (read the story here) to a packed house, and we finished to sustained applause and lots of audience members – some literally in tears – telling us how inspiring our story was.

Steven Bishofsky and I sharing our story at Ballard Writer's Jam

I tell you this not so much as an excuse to pat myself on the back (well, maybe there’s a little of that), but to make a point about telling stories, whether live or in writing. For Steven and I, the story of how we met is no longer a big deal – it’s just our story. In fact, we’ve told it so many times that, at this point, we find it a bit old hat. It’s only when we tell it to others that we realize how unique and moving it is and the possibility that it has to make an impact on people’s lives.

I believe that the same is often true for the stories we write. We dismiss the ideas that seem simple and obvious to us as not being high-concept enough or trendy enough or hot enough or whatever. But it’s often those very stories, the ones that seem simple because they’re so much a part of who we are, that can have the most impact on readers.

So next time you’re trying to decide what to write about, instead of reaching for an idea that’s far outside your experience,  consider going with the story that’s closest to home. You might find that it’s the one that will go straight to your reader’s hearts.

Odds and Ends

Friday, June 8th, 2012

Today is a red letter day for me, because this afternoon my critique group is meeting to give me feedback on my WIP. I’m so nervous and excited that I’m having trouble focusing, so I thought it would be a perfect day to catch you up on a couple of odds and ends.

First of all, I wanted to share a photo from the Teen Author Reading Night at the L.A. Central library a few weeks ago.

As you can see, I’m reading a scene from FLYAWAY. I tried a different scene than I usually read at events, and it has now become my favorite. On my right is Ron Koertge, author of STONER AND SPAZ II,  and on my left is Cecile Castelluci, author of THE YEAR OF THE BEASTS, who is also the organizer of the reading series.

Second, I wanted to share a couple of highlights from my visit to Garfield High School this Wednesday. It was the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken to – 90 students! – and the school’s black box theater is the coolest space I’ve ever presented in. It’s also the first time a bookstore has sponsored my visit – I was happy to have someone from the University Book Store in attendance.

My favorite question of the day was, “If you become a super-famous author, would you consider writing your autobiography?” A close second was, “Have you thought about making a movie of your book?” All of the questions the students asked were heartfelt. I loved their enthusiasm and thoughtfulness.

Last of all, I want to remind those of you who live in Seattle that I’ll be performing on Tuesday, June 12 at 7 p.m. with my husband, Steven Bishofsky, as part of the Ballard Writer’s Collective live storytelling event, Ballard Jam, at Egan’s Ballard Jamhouse. We’ll be telling the story of how cancer brought us together, with musical interludes by Steven. It’s going to be sweet and inspiring – I hope you can make it!

True Love and Cancer

Friday, June 1st, 2012

My husband, Steven, and I have been rehearsing for Ballard Jam, a live storytelling event at Egan’s Ballard Jam House put on by the Ballard Writer’s Collective. On June 12th, just seven days before our 13th wedding anniversary, we’re going to tell the story of how cancer brought us together. For those of you who aren’t able to make it, I’ve decided to tell the story in my blog today.

When I was 15, I started having dizzy spells. Sometimes at school I’d feel so dizzy that I’d have to sit down so I wouldn’t faint. Then I began feeling nauseous all the time, to the point where I was throwing up almost every day. I was losing weight, and I had red bumps on my legs and neck, which I now know were swollen lymph nodes. One day I felt so sick at school that I went to the school nurse, who called my dad to come pick me up. He took me to our family doctor, who sent me directly to the hospital. To make a long story short, I was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I received chemotherapy, recovered, and have been healthy for over 35 years.

After Steven finished graduate school, he took a trip to Switzerland. One day while he was there, he had a massive headache. The headache eventually went away, but when he got back to the states, he had a CAT scan and discovered that he had a brain tumor “the size of a small hamster” (Steven’s words). He had it removed surgically and underwent chemo and radiation and is now a 17-year brain cancer survivor.

When I was a young adult, all I wanted to do was forget my cancer experience and put it behind me. But when I reached my late 30s I had a change of heart and decided that I wanted to connect with other cancer survivors. It was with desire to connect in mine that I volunteered to help set up tables for a Cancer Survivor Celebration at the University of Washington in June of 1997.

While I was setting up the tables, I noticed a very attractive man standing on the sidelines with a guitar. I figured he was a hired musician. He also had a little boy with him, so I assumed he was married. It wasn’t until he was announced in the program as a brain cancer survivor that I realized we had the cancer experience in common. After hearing his moving song, which he’d written during his darkest days, I was even more intrigued. When the program ended, I decided to take a risk and talk to him.

That conversation led to a coffee date, which led to more dates, which eventually led to our marriage in 1999. I couldn’t ask for a better husband, partner, and friend.

Steven and me on the Big Island, 2010

I love hearing stories of how couples got together. Do you have an interesting story to share?

A Writing Exercise for Cancer Survivors

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

When Stacy Lawson of Red Square Yoga asked me if I would lead a writing exercise as part of a Restorative Yoga workshop at Gilda’s Club, a community resource for cancer survivors and their families, I jumped at the opportunity. I figured that between my personal writing practice and my own experience with cancer, I’d be able to come up with a great activity for the workshop. But then I started to wonder what I’d gotten myself into. What could I possibly offer people to help them get through what is probably the most difficult experience of their lives?

Then I remembered how, when I was undergoing chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as a teen, I would try to escape the uncomfortable sensations in my body by going to a beautiful place in my mind. That memory helped me create a writing exercise for the workshop participants.

The workshop took place last Sunday afternoon. After snacks and introductions, we went into the comfortable room where we’d be writing. Once everyone had gathered, I asked them to visualize a place they loved, a place where they felt happy and at peace. This could be a place in nature or an indoor space, a spot they had visited or a location they’d dreamed of visiting. I encouraged them to take their time and visualize it in full detail, paying attention to the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations around them.

The next step was to write about the place. I reminded the participants that this didn’t have to be “good” writing or even contain complete sentences. Their only job was to fully describe their special place for themselves.

After they had finished writing, I asked anyone who wanted to to share their work. They wrote about an amazing diversity of places, including beaches, woods, outdoor markets, Ireland, and China.

Next I asked them to circle 5 or 6 words within their description that evoked the essence of the place and use those words to write a short paragraph or poem.

Last of all, each person chose one word that held the memory of the place. Some of the words chosen were beach, rock, serenity, expanse, green, and frolic. I told them that this word was their talisman, something they could hang onto during a difficult treatment or episode of pain to help them escape to their special place.

It was such an honor to help lead the workshop and be surrounded by the courageous spirits of the participants. And for me, it was a reminder of how powerful writing – and words – can be.