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When Your Writing Mountain Is My Writing Molehill (and Vice Versa)

pepper_stripes [1]When her husband was hospitalized in the ICU a few years back, Ann Aguirre composed a blog post for Writer Unboxed about how she wrote great gobs of a novel at his bedside. (Happily, he made a full recovery.) I remember it because I always marveled at Ann’s output and was fascinated by anything to do with her process, hoping if I studied it I’d gain more insight into mine.

From what I could tell, her productivity formula was fairly simple: associate eating with writing, breathing with writing, contentment with writing, crankiness with writing, and view sleep as the means to recover enough energy for another bout of writing. In other words, given her favorite modus operandi, it made perfect sense that Ann would seek control in an uncontrollable situation by writing.

Ann’s bedside actions became a point of curiosity for me.

My entire medical career was a wasteland when it came to fiction. I hadn’t written a word, barely read any, if the truth be known. Since picking up the pen again, I’d written in odd places and times, sure, but during a vigil? Would I be capable? With so much going on and my old conditioning, would writing even occur to me?

As it turns out, we lost my mother-in-law last month to an aggressive brain tumor, so I now have answers to these questions and many others. Not only did I think of writing, Unboxeders, but if you can forgive me for calling you forth metaphorically into the room, I thought a great deal of you.

Before talking about what those bedside moments meant, let me nullify any potential guilt we might feel about benefiting from such a scenario. While the ending might have come suddenly, my mother-in-law’s passing was the culmination of a year-long series of letting-goes. She suffered from step-wise declines that robbed her of dignity, serenity, and independence. In contrast, her actual death was one of peace and comfort, surrounded by members of her large and loving family. We did right by her—I take great satisfaction in this. Also, at her core and to the end, she was a consummate caregiver and philanthropist. If her passing could benefit one person, I’m convinced she’d be greatly pleased.

If you’ve spent any time in the hospital—or in this case, a nursing home which rapidly turned into a hospice—you’ll know that there are moments of high drama and stress interspersed with eons of watchful passivity. One never can predict their relative proportion or exactly how they’ll be arranged.

I was prepared for this push-pull of stress-boredom and brought an arsenal of supplies in my backpack: laptop with charger, pen and paper, my journal, a work-in-progress, and several novels I was reading/studying.

My intention was to be available in the room for my “shifts,” writing if things were peaceful. When relieved by family members, I’d relocate to a quiet room on the same floor where I could work but be nearby in case of trouble.

It took all of an hour to discover a series of obstacles to my plan.

The physical setting— At the bedside, most of the time I was crowded behind a hospital curtain, cheek-to-jowl with my husband and in-laws. We perched on stools or on the cushion of my mother-in-law’s walker, trading places to provide care. Between the lack of privacy, tenuous position and constant jostling, there was no way to comfortably manage a laptop. Pen and paper weren’t any more practical.

As for the quiet room, it was separated from the main dining hall by a row of windows, effectively putting me on display for the residents as they ate. Guess which nursing home rule I discovered? Solitary visitors act like catnip to lonely patients with dementia.

My role as de facto consultant—Though I wasn’t my mother-in-law’s health agent, my experience in palliative care was obviously considered a boon to the family. I was asked to be present during doctors’ visits and help translate and guide the course of treatment. While this was my great privilege and honor, it meant revisiting my days on call in that I could never quite turn off the medical part of my brain.

Tonal whiplash—Finally, there was a big emotional gap between what was going on under my nose and my writing. I was living a drama while writing a rom-com. Passages in my WIP that felt delightful and pleasingly diversionary before now seemed trivial and joyless. I couldn’t enter my fictive world. Couldn’t enter one of the novels I’d brought, either. (The Accidental Tourist worked because of its synchronous blend of humor and pathos and because it was about a grief-stricken protagonist.)

The path forward

Unboxeders, given all the above, and that at my heart I am a committed caregiver as well, it should have been an easy decision to back-burner my writing and become fully immersed in the present, yes? Better to forgo a few weeks of fiction than deal with months or years of regret. Yet when I made the only choice possible for me, the moment was accompanied by surprising resistance, rather like when you go to open a jar of pickles, mouth salivating, and discover a seal that might have been set by Superman.

Once I’d thought things through, though, and began to fully attend to the present, did I leave my writer-self behind? Paradoxically, not at all.

I’d forgotten this, but there is something about the combination of sleep deprivation, stress, and the emotionality of a deathbed which provide for piercing moments of insight. It’s almost like a wormhole into a place of deeper meaning and purpose, which is where you come in.

This is one part of what I yearned to say to you in the moment, Unboxeders: That tangible pop when I opened the pickle jar? That unexpected resistance? It pointed to a thinking error I wasn’t conscious of beforehand—one which I suspect a few of you share.

When Ann wrote her article, would you agree her motive was likely to inspire? To teach fledgling writers what was possible and acceptable, even in the heated pitch of illness? Somehow I converted that intention from inspiration, to challenge, to yardstick, to cudgel of expectation.

Professional writers are people who write in hospital rooms, my thinking said. I cannot write. Therefore, I do not have a professional attitude toward my craft.

See the error(s) in logic? You might recognize the pattern if you catch yourself thinking something like this:

You get the idea.

Thing is, Unboxeders, and I appreciate this is a simple message but it’s one a few of us might need to relearn, Ann and I are different writers.

Our illness-facing selves were at different stages of life, anticipating different outcomes for our loved-ones.

We existed in different times in different rooms in different countries.

We write different genres, use different laptops, cultivate different themes.

We face different writerly mountains.
Different writerly molehills.
Even different writerly pickle jars.

Different writer.
Different writer.
Different writer.

As are you!

So…if you should need it, and if you’ll permit me another act of caregiving in the name of my late mother-in-law, this post is your permission to let go of any insidious comparisons you might be harboring. Be a human being you can be proud of. Trust that will be your shortest path to becoming your own, authentic brand of artist.

I believe Ann herself would agree.

And if you have spare time and are in need of a sense of purpose, volunteer in your nearest nursing home where I guarantee you’ll be an instant hit.

Now to you, Unboxeders. Have you transformed another writer’s accomplishment from inspiration to yardstick to dogma? If so, what allowed you to seize your freedom?

About Jan O'Hara [2]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [3] (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [4]; Cold and Hottie [5]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [6]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.