A few years ago I went to visit a friend I’d not seen in a while to say a quick hello on my way to a lunch. I was dressed in my favorite jeans and top, and I even wore makeup and managed to blow-dry my hair all shiny. I was then as I still am—as healthy as the ol’ clichéd horse, full of energy, sexuality, vitality, and kickassery.
What I want to focus on is the moment I stepped through her door and into her living-room. Here I strongly strode in, smiling my hello, slightly in a hurry to meet someone I was excited to be flirting with. I entered with all this HEALTH surrounding me like a big cloud of WHUPOW. I vibrated, hummed, shimmered.
Ah. But not so my friend. Her future was uncertain. Her health, her very life, in question. I don’t know what I’d expected—that she’d look the same as she always did, act the same as she always did, and that the beast inside her would be a hidden monster we’d both acknowledge by edging around it and nodding sagely and wisely about life’s twists and turns. All those pink ribbons and shit. The way it seems that if you have an illness you should be out running marathons and hi-fiving the air ’cause you are gonna beat this thang by golley-gee-willikers! Likely, I’d thought none of this, some of this, or all of this as I’d motored my way to her home, parked, and then knocked on her door. My pinked cheeks, my sturdy body, my clean-and-free-from-cancer insides. I walked into her house and she sat in her chair with cancer eating at her, what was left of her hair and her partially bald scalp showing through a little from her scarf, her pallid complexion.
Before she uttered a word, the look in her eyes said, “I want to be healthy again. I want to be strong again. I want to have on my cute clothes again. I want my hair back! I want this fucking cancer out of my body RIGHT NOW! I want to be me again. And I don’t care what Oprah Magazine says, I don’t feel like being all heroic. Okay?” And maybe even, “I’m glad my friend is here, but . . . .” But, she’s making me feel sicker. But, she’s making me feel ugly. But, she’s making me feel hairless and sick and pale and pukey and weak.
She simply said, “You look nice.” And those wistful words punched me in the face, hard.
Before she spoke and most assuredly after, I’d put myself in her place (and she in mine) in a way I’d not expected—whether I’d hit all our thoughts on the proverbial nail isn’t important for the purposes of thinking from a “writer’s perspective.” What matters is—
Empathy. Perception. Projection.
The fleeting thought crossing the brain and lasering from the eye. The soft wistful words. The two of us facing each other and one who’d like to trade places and the other who wondered if one day she would.
The way I felt insensitive, even if it was only by my ignorance, or really only by me just being me living my life, just as she would be doing if we had traded places.
Of course I can empathize. Often too much. Being in a room of people is sometimes excruciating—all those thoughts and feelings swirling about smacking me senseless. Whatever. Before I walked into that house, I had no idea. Zero idea. I had not one little bitty clue that I’d see her like that, feel her like that, (almost) understand her like that.
For why should she be sick and I be so damned healthy? Who or what decides these things? No one decides. Life just is what it is and doles out what it doles out randomly without emotion. And in that random unemotional black hole the writer digs out truths.
In “writing what I (hope never to) know” I can also use that moment of recognition to write something from my friend’s perspective. Will I get it exactly right? Will I know everything she thought or felt? No. But I don’t need to. I will convince my audience that I was able to open up her skull and peer inside to all her mystery and all her secret thoughts, and while I’m opening up her skull, I can open up her body and see her cancer and track its progress. And from that could arrive a story written from “what I know.” Empathy. Paying attention. A knowing. A guessing. A projection. A perception. A learning. A reaching into and out of.
Sometimes that’s what Writing What You Know means.
By the way, my friend is fine now. Healthy and feeling wonderful. Pinked cheeks and shiny hair. She was always beautiful, even when ill, but that’s another story for another day. No one would ever have to know she’d been so sick, except her and except me.
Have you had an empathetic/projecting/perceptive moment that has stayed with you? Perhaps spurred on a story, or, maybe just changed the way you thought about things/a person/a situation?