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Stealing Time

Selfie at the hospital Dilloway

Please welcome Margaret Dilloway [1] as our newest WU contributor! Margaret is the author of three published novels (How to Be an American Housewife, The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns, Sisters of Heart and Snow) and an upcoming middle grade fiction book (Momotaro Xander and the Lost Island of Monsters), and can often be found giving helpful advice in WU’s Facebook group [2]. We’re thrilled to have her join us!

Sometimes everything we do seems to take on equal importance, like spotlights trained on every prop onstage when the lights should only be on the actors. And then some invisible hand wrests away control.

Last spring, I published my third women’s fiction novel. I was also working under contract on the second book of Momotaro, my middle grade fantasy series, the first of which publishes this year. Thus my days from spring on into summer were spent writing and obsessing about writing, and numbers and obsessing about numbers, and generally bemoaning all the writing things and fretting about what would happen next. You know. Typical writer stuff.

Then, in June, I visited a new cardiologist.

I should have known how it was going to turn out when I walked into the UCSD cardiology courtyard that day. Nice place, I thought, seeing the fountains and benches outside the brand-new facility. But this’ll be my last visit. It was the kind of foreshadowing that reality shows use,  displaying footage of too-cocky contests bragging about how they’ll win, only to be immediately booted.

I’d been going to see a different cardiologist for a genetic condition called noncompaction cardiomyopathy for the past five years. It runs strong in my family; both of my siblings have it, and my mother and two of her sisters died from it. Basically, the heart walls are supposed to be smooth, but for us they’re spongy, which can lead to the muscle flabbily and ineffectively pumping. There is no cure, only management of symptoms. Symptoms range from none at all, to heart failure.

My old cardiologist had told me everything looked stable. To come in if I ever fainted.

This new cardiologist conducts research into the condition, a relatively newly discovered thing. He has about a dozen patients with the disease. As such, he’s more experienced and proactive. The monitor I’d worn, he told me, had revealed a run of ventricular tachycardia. Too many of those and you can go into cardiac arrest and die.

The solution was a pacemaker and defibrillator. Grim Reaper insurance. A mini-paramedic team accompanying you wherever you go.

As I listened to him talk, I felt all the emotions expected in such a big-stressful-news situation: panic, worry, sorrow. But underneath that, my pragmatic writer’s brain rubbed its hands together gleefully. “Damn. So this is how a doctor speaks when delivering news like this. I wonder when I can use it in a story?” We are buzzards, writers.

Over the next few months, my luck worsened. The two procedures I was originally supposed to have—the pacemaker/ICD and an ablation—turned into four as complications arose. The last was the worst, a week-long emergency hospitalization to correct a dissected femoral artery and blood clot, with six weeks’ recovery afterward.

During those months, I realized a few things about writing.

One, when you’re sort of close to dying, it’s a hell of a lot easier to see that worrying about things beyond your control—which is most of the business end of writing—is wholly futile. I mean, we always know that intellectually, don’t we? But it’s hard to know it in your bones until a bigger problem comes along and punches you in the gut. You won’t go to the ER clutching your manuscript, and your Amazon numbers are not very good at making you soup.

The spotlight’s shifted to the important objects on stage, the actors, and you suddenly start paying very close attention to them. The way your youngest daughter’s hair turns from gold to brown in the light. How your husband’s eye color varies with his shirt. Your teenage son’s new facial hair. How your oldest daughter sounds so much like you that you can’t tell where your voice ends and hers begins.

Two—and I realize the contradiction here—your writing really does matter.

Writing provides a bit of flotsam in a sea of chaos to cling hold of. The need to tell stories, that writer brain that filed away the doctor’s dialogue to use later, is what kept me sane. While you’re lying in bed recovering, what better way is there to take your mind off your problems than to make up fictional ones about fictional people? (Yes, the prose may have been rather interesting when I was heavily doped up; but it also provided some amusement when I reread it later.)

Writing is a constant companion, whether or not you have a book deal, whether you’re rich or poor, healthy or sick. The business of it doesn’t matter as much as the process. Writers are defined by their need to write and hone their craft. This experience taught me that.

Every day, I regard the tangible reminders of my mortality. I feel the hard plastic case of the ICD pressing under the tender skin of my upper chest as it sends reports to the doctor. I apply cream to the six-and-half inch scar on my leg and make appointments for the graft underneath to be scanned, so it doesn’t close.

Which brings me to the most important point. The question people ask the most at book events is: how do you find time to write? I have a full-time job/small kids/I’m too tired. Maybe I’ll knock out a book when I’m retired, people tell me, or after the children go to college.

My answer is to write. Steal that time. Write now, because now is all you have. Write the stories you love and which make you feel whole.

How do you steal time in your everyday life to write? Why is writing important to you?

About Margaret Dilloway [3]

Margaret Dilloway [1] is the author of the new middle grade series MOMOTARO: XANDER AND THE LOST ISLAND OF MONSTERS (Disney Hyperion) and three women’s fiction novels. She lives in San Diego with her family and a big Goldendoodle named Gatsby. She teaches creative writing to middle schoolers and does developmental editing.

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