To write what you know is one of the biggest nuggets of writing advice that comes from authors. It doesn’t matter if the writer is published or unpublished, well-known or obscure, or a beginner or someone highly established. Writing what you know allows the writer to draw upon personal events where details can appear more naturally and make the writing feel more authentic. This advice applies to so much more than just events. We feel a wide spectrum of emotions ranging from euphoric to gut wrenching as we live through these events. Writers know emotions and must write those emotions. I believe this is why we get hooked with a story we feel has nothing to do with our lives. It isn’t the mob lifestyle or unspeakable events from Nazi Germany during WWII that pulls readers into a story. We identify with characters who feel what we feel.
As a teacher teaching second graders, this often meant I read lots of informative pieces on playing with pets, narratives of a summer trip where a flight was as exciting as the destination, and realistic fiction stories about camping, sports, or school. Most kids have fairly similar experiences coming from the same geographic area and being so young. The joy of writing, experiencing success, and becoming more independent writers were always wide-ranging goals in any piece. I wanted kids to write what they knew. Writing about what they didn’t know was a blank page.
It’s the same with me.
As a reader, I look to sources who are experts. Mitch Albom. Sue Monk Kidd. Brené Brown. I go back to favorite authors as well as whomever I’m reading at the moment to reread passages and examine what made them effective. I read like a writer. I love words and storytelling. Even when reading fiction, I understand authors research their topics to make stories credible and realistic. Many factors make writing come alive.
I ask myself, as a writer, what do I know?
Unfortunately, I know too much.
My mother had uterine cancer that was successfully removed through surgery. It gave me an early example that disease would always be caught early and without much inconvenience. I recall a couple of years later telling friends she had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that it was going to be harder but that she’d be okay. It was harder. Mom had a partial mastectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation. I became an expert on her health and breast cancer knowledge. Information was power and I wanted to understand all of it. All was good for years. Golden years.
And then it wasn’t. She wasn’t.
Looking back, I’m not sure if she cared for all my pearls of wisdom that I’d learned. I likely was annoying. It’s very different when the shoe is on the other foot and you have been diagnosed rather than a family member. I want my information but have a bit of an inner attitude when someone who isn’t an authority drops false information at my feet.
My metastatic breast cancer diagnosis came about a month or two later on the heels of hers.
There is a lot I could write about from my experiences with cancer with my mom and from my own. I haven’t mined memories of it with my mom because of the pain. I don’t feel as much pain with my own. I’ve found it to be cathartic and a home to give voice to the pain and whatever other truths need speaking.
Others write from a very factual perspective of their experience. Expert background experience support their writing. They write from legal, medical, patient experience, and personal experience perspectives. Others share raw emotions and reactions to what’s happening in their lives through poems and deeply personal reflections. I tend to write about cancer from the lens of what happens to me and my thoughts about it. Factual information gets sprinkled here and there as it impacts my chosen subject or theme. We’re all invited to sit a while with these perspectives and stories of shared experiences.
Write what you know. I know cancer.
Emotions were mentioned at the top of the piece. We all experience universal feelings. Fear. Despair. Loneliness. Humor. Love. Hope. Spirit. A small event of forgetting music at a piano recital can pack some huge emotions of not feeling supported, being humiliated, and hearing your parents lie to you about your achievement. It’s still a tough memory for me. This story can be more powerful than a story that retells a death in the family that is void of emotions. Emotions and feelings spill over in writing because the goal is for someone else to understand and connect with what was written. When I think of a common quality that’s at the core of favorite books, or dare I say even things I write, is the desire to be understood. We crave that as writers and readers.
Feelings are our emotional truths.
Stories of good times on Grandma’s farm help me preserve memories that I want to remember. Her home is a strong example of how emotions create the writing. I took a photo of her farm from out in the field one winter. My grandma, dad, and mom were all warm inside visiting after our Sunday meal. I wrote about how the people I loved were in the photo even though I couldn’t see them as part of an assignment in college. Later, I wrote a poem about it. Years later, this house is in disarray. Raccoons have taken over and hauntingly walk on keys of the damaged piano in the night. A cousin’s son and his wife moved onto the property into the more modern home across the drive when they married. They see the old house as dilapidated and scary (I do too) but more of my emotions are grounded in Sunday visits, time with Grandma, and playing with the farm cats. I sent my cousin’s son a copy of the poem so he could see the abandoned house as a home for a few brief moments.
Write what you know. I know my feelings.
Small experiences can have big impacts. I remember winning a cake at a cake walk when I was about six and it was the first thing I ever won. It was a carrot cake with nuts. I was allergic and unable to eat it, but I had won something and felt special. Memories playing at the playground across the street fill many childhood memories. Camping in Girl Scouts. Family vacations. Being bullied. Never knowing if you really fit in. I remember holding my dad’s hand in the ICU and watching it shake trying to find mine after one of his heart surgeries. I have entertaining experiences throwing dinner parties, both fun and disastrous. News of a good scan. Not so good news. There are arguments and celebrations. Little events make a life. Although short, this brief list weaves together experiences with emotions. Most are waiting to be written.
Hope isn’t an experience as much as it is a belief. This belief has been a driving force in some of my experiences and many of my thoughts. Links are provided if you’d like to go back and read past posts. Hope is what I know.
Write what you know. I know my experiences.
I know a few things about teaching after twenty-three years in the classroom. Best practices in curriculum and child development have come and gone. Co-workers and students have provided so many stories that you can’t make up. Classic one liners that still make me laugh. One year each child reminded me of a different breed of dog. I loved that class. One year there was a child who had some obvious unidentified emotional issues but who could work quite successfully under his desk. I loved that child as challenging as he was. Another year there was another child who inched her way closer and closer to the door and thought she was hiding. She was a character. I remember mistakes I’ve made like working with glitter as part of projects. I could write about lockdown drills. There is endless material. I can remember where I stood when I learned my dad had died. I know where I was when I got the call that my mom had taken a turn and the end was near. I can bring up the moment where a friend told me she was pregnant. The day I shared with my students I had cancer and couldn’t be with them is still fresh. So many nonteaching things happen within the walls of a school. The things we’d hear if those walls could talk.
I was happy teaching. At times I was frustrated. I felt successful, secure, and safe. Teaching was home.
Write what you know. I know teaching.
I’m not the only one who knows these things.
What do you know?
Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry that usually is about nature themes. It’s written in three lines of five, seven, and five syllables. I find it a beautiful way to create images and stir feelings. Writing it has made me a stronger writer because I must be concise with a finite set of syllables. I often find myself walking around thinking in syllables. I have broadened the scope of my themes when I write haiku to take on personal experiences as I live with metastatic cancer. I offer glimpses into my heart with a bit of that imagery and feeling I’m hoping comes across in seventeen syllables. The more I write, I better I get. I hope you connect with them in your own way.
I answered the phone
the voice said you have cancer
and everything changed
but you look just fine
you can’t be metastatic
you do not act sick
tears on my pillow
tears and sobs in the shower
tears behind a smile
chemo in my veins
chasing after cancer cells
killing good and bad
you’ve stolen my hair
my eyes have a lifeless look
I’m pale, weak, and scared
scars on the outside
reflect little of being
scarred and scared inside
we can land on Mars
and urgently make vaccines
we can’t cure cancer
who is this person
who stares back in the mirror
she looks familiar
the dreaded scanner
I lie inside motionless
hoping for good news
nervous in a gown
waiting for fate to unfold
in the next minutes
we need more research
and more effective treatments
to save those we love
cancer spread elsewhere
is known as metastatic
and cannot be cured
wicked cancer cells
how did this happen to me
how is this my life
cancer side effects
suck everything out quickly
that helps us feel well
sleepless once again
I lie awake unable
to dream something else
balances hope and science
when you have cancer
spring turns to summer
my next season is unknown
I live in the now
petals on a rose
lovely and soft and alive
how long will you stay
bad thoughts creep inside
my heart about when and how
that I push away
dying is rebirth
to where our souls remember
and feel love and light
Cancer makes faith and religion harder for me. I’ve always questioned and still believed. I haven’t wavered on what I consider the big things and feel each of these main points is clear enough to stand on their own. I am firm on these aspects of my faith:
• There is a God (or universal being, higher source, energy).
• God is love and God loves all of us.
• Religion is not God.
• Faith and religion are not the same thing.
• I am a spiritual being having a human experience in a body.
• Our purpose is to be happy and to help one another.
• Heaven is real.
How does cancer muddle faith and religion?
- Many of these reasons overlap one another. Many people live by believing God has a plan, a plan for them, and that cancer must be part of His plan. Buying into suffering and cancer as God’s plan contradicts my belief that God is love. God doesn’t want me or anyone to suffer. He doesn’t want misery and unhappiness. Cancer isn’t good. It isn’t a blessing. It isn’t part of a plan or grand design. It steals, destroys, and kills. Cancer isn’t God or part of a plan.
- People beat cancer because God is on their side. Ooooh, this boils my blood. This implies those who die from metastatic cancer are somehow Godless. They didn’t pray hard enough. Their faith or belief wasn’t strong enough. No, no, and no. I pray. I have faith. Would this waver when cancer recurs or returns as metastatic disease? What did they do wrong? Nothing.
- People can pray away cancer. Nope. Here’s one that overlaps with God being on someone’s side. Prayer is powerful. Miracles happen. People pray and still pass. God didn’t need one more angel. When people say they pray for me, I have to wonder what specifically is in their prayer. Is it that I don’t suffer? Is it I have more time? Is it that effective treatments are matched to me so I have a complete response? Is it for a miracle? Some of these prayers can contradict one another. I don’t want anyone’s prayers unless they align with my prayers and goals for health and life. Maybe it’s just something some people say and they don’t follow through with the prayer part.
- People with cancer must have done something wrong and have gravely sinned. Honestly, I don’t hear this one too often because of the company I keep, yet I know there are groups of people out there who believe such nonsense. They aren’t my people and I believe there is something fundamentally wrong with their belief system if this is something they believe.
How can God exist and cause such suffering and pain?
I wish I knew.
A good friend and I have an ongoing discussion on the existence of God and why bad things happen to people and in the world. She questions a lot more than I do and has become agnostic over the years through watching her father pass from a long slow decline after a stroke and other health issues, and seeing her mother hidden inside a body ravaged from Alzheimer’s disease. She knows what I’ve gone through losing my parents. She’s been there for me as I live with metastatic cancer. Events in the world eat at her belief like a parasite. There is too much suffering for her to believe God exists. She looks to me and I confess I have a tough time refuting her arguments. I don’t think I’ve helped her, and I struggle not to have my own beliefs erode.
What can I say? How can I reconcile God’s existence and why bad things happen?
The internet hasn’t helped me at all. Lots of Bible verses surface. If someone already questions belief in God, these are hardly helpful. I keep a journal of quotes from many sources that support my beliefs. Bible verses are included in these. I tend to use broader examples from everyday life and the world. Furthermore, not everyone is Christian, and there are many other good fits for someone looking for the right home for their beliefs. Attaching a label to your beliefs doesn’t do much for me anyway. I’m more of an action-based gal.
My belief is not up for debate. I know where I stand with God. I believe. My prayer life is good.
Cancer doesn’t even need to be the problem, the plague, or the evil applied to my reasoning. Replace cancer with COVID. Use the January 6th riots on the Capitol, the violence, and the attempted coup on the US government as your lens. Take terrorism, racism, poverty, homelessness, domestic abuse, destruction of the environment, lack of mental health resources, drug abuse, natural disasters, or something else when thinking about why bad things happen. Does saying God has a plan work here? How about God being on someone’s side (the wrong side) when these bad things happen? Did people get what they deserved due to some grave sin? Of course not. It doesn’t hold up.
Somehow saying God has a plan when someone is diagnosed with cancer or dies from cancer is supposed to comfort people. It’s the exception to the above scenarios. It’s unsettling, uncomforting, and not an exception.
I’m going to keep something incredibly complex as simple I can.
Bad things happen because
• of others’ actions (free will).
• of our own actions (free will).
• of natural disasters (nature).
• of imperfect science (imperfect bodies / science).
• of unknowns (unexplained).
The unexplained is where GOD comes in. Some things are not for us to know. Why do we think we must understand everything? We are only humans and God is divine. This is where it gets a little sticky because it’s the central question. GOD is an unexplainable entity. We use words like crimes, tragedies, disasters, and accidents to explain horrible events.
Good things happen because
• of others’ actions (free will).
• of our own actions (free will).
• of nature (nature).
• of science (research / science).
• of unknowns (unexplained).
The unexplained is where GOD comes in. Some things are not for us to know. Why do we think we must understand everything? We are only humans and God is divine. We use words like miracles, blessings, gifts, and destiny to explain wonderful events.
The reasons are the same. Our language and perceptions change. Our language is the construct. Faith isn’t based on facts or language. Belief is the real deal.
How do you explain love? How do you explain a soul? Why did we develop brains that allow us to feel compassion, sadness, and joy? How do you explain consistencies across time and cultures throughout history and present day that all have similarities in worship and a higher being? Yes, I have lots of questions and I believe.
We are here having a human experience – we are more than our bodies. That’s what it means to BELIEVE.
God comes down to belief.
Thank you for reading.
When the sky falls
It falls directly above me
Chunks of space left above me
An empty howling nothing that shouldn’t be there
An empty howling nothing
Pulling and waiting
Fissures fracture across the blue like fault lines on the ground
Foreshadowing where the next piece may fall
Sky falls when you hear the words
You have cancer
Lots of sky falls
Scans confirm it’s already metastatic
Another piece plummets
So much information
Type, subtype, hormone receptor, Her2Neu
Each a piece of forever lost sky
Cancer words hurl pieces of sky
To the ground in a show of gravity and force
Grades, mutations, invasive, lobular, ductal
Bigger pieces fall
You barely notice because
Of the doom that distracts while closing in
Like a dark night of your soul
This piece hits like bricks
You’re never the same
Inside and out
So many deaths
Each their own portion of fallen sky
Grandma, Mom, Pete, Jim, Becky, Susie,
Bobby, Karen, Marge, Kim, Lalay, Lindsay,
Meghan, Melissa, Heather, and so many others
Whose names do you remember?
Speak and give them voice
Irreplaceable sky fallen with each
Loss through death touches our souls forever
Like a shadow that never leaves
Or a coldness in the yellow warmth of sun
So many scans
Tiny tubes of skyless holes
Confining, enclosing, lifeless
Sky falls waiting for results
Slingshots take aim at clouds
We ourselves knock out chunks before we hear
News of regression, stability, or progression
Pieces of blue get patched and repaired with good news
And then fall again in bigger chunks with bad news
until they can’t be put back
Some things can’t be put back
Including the fallen sky
That won’t see sunrise or sunset again
Skies fall in countless ways
Some spoken and some silent
Skies drop cruelly with metastatic cancer
Piece by piece
Chunk by chunk
Section by section
Assaulting, assailing, and attacking
Erasing, eroding, and emptying more and more
Stealing, silencing, and stilling before our eyes
A persisting and prevailing powerlessness causing pain
For more than just the haver
Cancer carnage concealed in common language
Of either succumbing or statistics
What’s being done?
Where’s the urgency?
Why can’t it be solved?
When will all be saved?
How will we get there?
What’s being done is our voices
Speaking and shouting
More and more
We will be seen
And not silenced
More research slowly unfolds
More action and faces
More is needed
The urgency is the estimated 43,600 breast cancer deaths
For 2021 in the US
119 a day
Up 3 from last year
The answer is more resources and research
More advocacy, attention, and connections
Better treatments, more trials, more collaboration
Growing bigger one life at a time
I don’t know when all will be saved
I hope, I cry, I push, I pray
I keep going
I still don’t know
No one does
I don’t know how
But believe one day
Cancer will fall and be no more
Just like those pieces of falling sky
The sky has always been one of my favorite things
The endless blues
The different hues
The starry nights
The paint of sunrises and sunsets
The clouds floating freely wherever the wind takes them.
Still moments and morphing shapes change before our eyes
My home is still under its dome
Hope is in the sky
Let’s keep our eyes steady on the hope
Of today and all our tomorrows
And not those pieces of sky that fall
They will sadly keep falling
And I will look up to find
Handfuls of hope
Patches of blue
Where I can
Years back, I had a student I will call Paul. Paul greeted me cheerfully every morning and most days made me smile easily. He was a chatterbox, an average student, and enjoyed being at school. He was there for the social aspects and needed redirection to work independently, but he’d always tell me learning was very important. He struck me as a happy child because he could find the bright side in just about anything.
At some point during that school year, Paul lost his enthusiasm. School wasn’t where he wanted to be. He was unusually quiet and wouldn’t open up. There had been a few more behavior issues surfacing. It was a puzzle until the morning I logged on to my school email and found an angry email from his mother letting me know Paul had been hit in the face during class. She included the principal in the email as well, citing concerns her son was being bullied at school both in class and on the playground.
Had Paul been hit in the face in class? Sadly, yes. I was there when it happened and already had it processed and worked through with both boys. Enter a boy I’ll call Ali. Ali had poor impulse control, and like Paul, could be easily distracted. Now, it doesn’t take long for mutual distractors to connect with one another in whatever ways they will. What was interesting in this situation was that Paul had positioned himself right behind Ali during a cooperative class activity. He was holding one of Ali’s arms behind his back and wouldn’t let go. Paul also left that part out of his story when he reported the story to his mother.
So, Ali slugged him.
Paul let go.
Every player had a different perspective of these events. Paul’s mom was seeing a pattern that worried her and she was advocating for her son. She knew if she threw the word bullied into the conversation that it would have considerable traction. It always does whether it is an accurate description of events or not. I wonder what she would have thought if I suggested Paul actually had bullied Ali because of repetitive issues between the boys. I didn’t ask. No need to stir that pot.
The principal had more of a three-tiered perspective: support for the child, positive communication with the parent, and supporting how I responded to what happened in the classroom. He knew of the other incidents that involved playground events and some reoccurring students.
Ali’s perspective was reactive. He often didn’t think before he did something. I imagine he was thinking something along the lines of, “Why is Paul grabbing me? It’s my turn in the game. Let go!” Pow. Problem solved.
Paul had a couple points of view. He knew what would get a response from home, and he genuinely was not feeling accepted by peers. He wanted friendships, but ironically had unsuccessful interactions which achieved the exact opposite of what he intended. He felt picked on. I never really learned what happened on the playground, but I’m sure it factored into his feelings. In his mind, all these things together made him feel bullied.
My teacher perspective was one where I was just baffled by Paul’s motivation to grab Ali’s arm like he did in the first place. I was equally baffled with Ali. Who just hauls off and hits someone? I guess someone who feels like they are being restrained for no reason.
Reality is often intangible. Each of us has our own reality as we perceive it, each through our own lens. The same event affects people differently.
The same is true with cancer. Cancer affects people differently. There is no right. Each person perceives cancer from their own viewpoint. Those who are back to whatever normal is after an early stage cancer diagnosis and treatment see cancer very differently from those with metastatic cancer. Some with metastatic cancer call themselves survivors, thrivers, metsers, cancer havers, lifers, or warriors. It comes down to the individual. Caregivers, family, oncologists, and nurses all offer their own unique perspectives. Media in my opinion gets it wrong more than they get it right because their goals for a story don’t often match mine. Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the repetitive emphasis on pink and awareness rather than research and action is a perfect example.
How others with Stage IV cancer view those of us who have survived longer than the 2-3 year median is another area of differing perspectives. I read something recently where someone felt that those who shared longer survival times were being cruel to those who weren’t likely to experience more years. I’ll hit nine years in a few months. I see those who share longer survival as symbols of hope. I look to those who have 11, 15, and over 20 years living with metastatic disease.
It’s all a crapshoot. It all sucks. I recognize it may be difficult to read news when you may not be doing well. Sometimes it’s rough to read news of stable scans or NEAD when mine are not. It can be hard for me to share news when things are going well because I know others don’t have those results. I usually don’t share much news publicly. And yet, I don’t see sharing such news as being cruel. Good news is always good news.
One viewpoint I have a tough time accepting is the natural or alternative approaches to treating cancer. Modern medicine is always going to be my frontline plan. I do believe in complementary therapies to support my health. There was someone early on in my diagnosis who reminded me more than once that I chose the chemo route to treat cancer. Did she think I didn’t know? What exactly was her point? I was well aware that I chose science over crazy. I may eat my kale and turmeric, but I’m of the opinion I need treatments with more medical substance. I’m here because of them.
There are those with cancer who may want to talk about how things are going and medical results in great detail. Some people are an open book. A patient (total stranger) in the treatment waiting area once told me all about his medical treatment plan and then proceeded to stand up and almost take off his t-shirt to show me his burns from radiation. I hadn’t asked, couldn’t stop him, and got myself an eyeful of awful. He was all about sharing. To each their own.
Over the years of living with metastatic breast cancer, it has been especially challenging not to let negative comments from family members and well-meaning friends fester away and gnaw at me. Some people at times are just awkward with me. How could the same person ask repeatedly if I missed teaching? Maybe it was dementia or just awkwardness on their part. My “prognosis” used to be brought up often by another. A friend or two has become distant. Look, I’m living and out in the world accomplishing things I wouldn’t be if I were working full time. It strikes me as really uncaring that others try to stick me in a place they think I am or remind me of what a textbook has to say about me. Occasionally, someone “reminds” me that I have cancer. I’m not going to forget. It’s with me every day.
The Blind Men and the Elephant is an Indian fable about six blind men who encountered an elephant but did not know what an elephant was. They saw it by feeling it with their hands. Each felt a different part of it. One thought the elephant was like a pillar by feeling its strong leg. Another disagreed and thought the elephant was like a rope because he had touched its tail. The third, who had touched the elephant’s trunk, insisted an elephant was more like a thick branch of a tree. The man who had felt the elephant’s ear thought an elephant was like a big hand fan. The fifth blind man thought an elephant was like a big wall from touching its belly, and the last, who had touched the elephant’s tusk, said an elephant was like a solid pipe. All of the men insisted he was right and they loudly argued.
Along came the king who didn’t like all the noise. He told the blind men they all had different experiences but were all right. After the men understood the true nature of an elephant, the arguments ended, and the elephant transported the men away.
We are so like the blind men when we let only our experiences form our perspectives. And of course, how could it be any other way? What is important to keep in mind with the parable and with life is that people approach situations from different perspectives based on different versions of reality. Cancer is a pretty big whopping elephant and gets perceived in countless ways.
I may not agree with how everyone chooses to share or specific ideas about cancer. I know not everyone agrees with all of my thoughts. That’s okay. I believe we still can support one another and can learn from each other. There is room for all of us at the table to share our experiences.
And I won’t slug anyone if we disagree.