Write What You Know

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 It doesn’t matter if the writer is published or unpublished, well-known or obscure, or a beginner or someone highly established.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?

Cancer

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.

Feelings

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.

Experiences

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.

Hope, Belief, and a Monthly Planner

Doom Dibbling or Hope Harvesting

Write what you know. I know my experiences.

Teaching

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?

Treatment Day Lessons

My treatment for metastatic breast cancer happens at a teaching hospital. It isn’t unusual for a resident or intern to accompany my oncologist during my office visit. I have become a quick study as to who seems confident, empathetic, and knowledgeable in a few short minutes. Some interact more; some merely observe. These residents come and go.

What I failed to realize until a couple of weeks ago was just how much teaching goes on between my treatment nurses and myself during treatment and from that experience. We learn different things as we teach together. Below is a description of what I took away from a recent treatment.

I’ll start with labs. My port had not yet been replaced at the time which meant an IV line was placed in my arm for the blood draw and chemo. Both arms have been used/abused generously from a hospital stay and a previous treatment visit. My port was so handy for my personal comfort and because of my hard to find veins. The IV Team was paged, and they came to detect a vein. I love that there is a team for this sole purpose. They rolled in with an ultrasound on wheels and searched for a vein. A few phlebotomists huddled round and we all watched. A perfect black round shape was found that was described as a juicy vein. It seemed newsworthy to the other phlebotomists that two different needle sizes were available to access veins and that I needed the larger one inserted. Now they know. I asked how long ultrasounds had been used to support vein detection. The answer was about 10 years. I couldn’t imagine what it was like before this when someone would be poked relentlessly multiple times to find a vein so blood could be drawn and an IV line set. Pure torture for someone like me. I also learned fewer people chose ports ten years ago. Now, the reverse is true.

Patients and nurses also have a lot to teach and learn from each other.

I was fortunate to have one of my favorite nurses assigned to me. Libby had only been my nurse once before, but I liked her instantly. She was thorough, caring, and interested in me. It didn’t hurt she thought I looked much younger than my age. Flattery will get you everywhere, right? I was thrilled to see Libby open the door to my room since the nurse who had showed me to my room and took my vitals struck me as unsure about the equipment. I decided she was new, good hearted, but new.

Libby had done her reading and read the medical notes from my recent hospital stay involving the leak in my port and a blood infection. The teacher in me always finds someone who does their homework impressive. I learned Libby had once been an education major herself before switching to nursing. Anyway, she sat down and wanted to hear more about exactly what happened and how my problems were discovered. She sat down to listen. That action also impressed me. When nurses have this information, it helps them look for signs and symptoms. I was more than happy to share information that could be helpful to other patients.

Later, Libby told me about some information that was shared with the nurses about an anonymous patient that had swelling the size of a golf ball on her neck where the cause was unknown. Guess who that was? I rather bashfully admitted that was also me. I felt like a problem patient. Yet, I was pleased that the other nurses had been made aware of the situation and what was done to address it. Furthermore, I learned that the special triage nurse who had come in to examine my throat and neck that day had questioned if the port was working effectively when an allergic reaction was thought to be the cause. I remember her coming in to assess me but had forgotten she questioned my port. It was ruled out because my port still returned blood. All this is important because it can help them connect dots faster in the future. I never realized I was being so useful by having all these problems. I sure know I’ve learned things I never thought I would.

One thing I wanted to happen during my visit was to have my sutures removed from my port removal. There was a small suture drama days earlier where interventional radiology told me still having these could pose a problem for them placing a new port. It was completely absurd and another long story. When I finally spoke to my surgeon’s nurse, I asked her if I could get someone to remove them while having treatment. I would be at a hospital after all and it shouldn’t be that hard, certainly not enough of an uproar to uproot plans. She agreed. Another nurse came in before my treatment started and took them out in minutes. It was so simple that I almost thought I could do it myself, but my small scissors and tweezers aren’t sterile and I’m not quite that crazy.

Finally, the original nurse who had shown me to my room returned. She had returned with some questions on cold capping. I’m thinking I must have a reputation for being approachable and somewhat informative. Her questions were pretty standard involving timing for post-cooling and then thawing. It’s different for different chemotherapies received. If it helps someone learn that can support other patients, I’m all for it.

Collaboration in patient care benefits everyone, including future patients. I never really thought about nurses possibly learning from me. Now, I realize it’s exactly like how my students taught me as a teacher. I learned tons from them. My role as the patient has similarities to that of the student. We all work together. My treatment day was a phenomenal learning experience for me and a good example of teamwork where I’m a valued member of the team.

What Objects Tell the Story of Your Life?

This type of question fascinates me. It’s a wonderful opportunity for self-reflection and discovery. The answer can change over time as different significant events are experienced, and even as major interests come and go. When I first started thinking about storytelling objects, the number three popped into my mind. Three objects was a good number. Three objects soon became extremely limiting. Then I tried to compartmentalize my life into three sections: past, present, and future. I could have several objects within each section. The future section posed the biggest problem. A crystal ball is not one of my objects. Time as some sort of construct to organize my story helps, but something is still missing here, too. Finally, I fell back on simple self-reflection to identify objects to represent stories that collectively tell a little bit of the story of my life.

Object: Lisa and the Grompet (book)

Story: Independence

There have been countless times where I’ve unearthed a memory and thought, “Ah-ha, so this is where it started.” I have found letters I wrote to my mom while I lived in Scotland declaring how I might as well go places on my own so I could see as much as I could and do what I wanted. I went all over on my own and thought perhaps this was where my independent streak was born. Being in Scotland for a year, however, was already a story of independence.

But it goes back further. Both my parents always valued education as a way to be independent and for me to stand on my own. Good call, parents. I place a high value on education for many reasons. It continues to give me a lot of happiness. It gave me wonderful years in a career I loved. Being independent enough to support yourself and get to do what you love can’t be matched.

But this story still goes back even further, quite a bit further. I remember my dad dropping me off for Sunday school for the first time. We were early and no one else was there. A little boy showed up. My dad wanted to stick around to make sure I was okay, but I shooed him off, telling him I was just fine and had a new friend. He reluctantly left.

For a long time, I thought this was the first memory of me asserting an independent spirit, but no, I can trace it back further still. As a young child, there was this book I loved to check out repeatedly at the public library – Lisa and the Grompet. It was about a little girl Lisa who was bossed around by everyone in her family.

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Lisa and the Grompet (written and illustrated by Patricia Coombs)

 

She knew what she needed to do.  No one had to keep reminding her. One afternoon she discovered a little grompet creature outside who needed someone to take care of it and tell it what was what. Hmmm . . . I felt a lot like Lisa and never liked being told what I should do. Yes, this I think is where my story of independence subconsciously took root. Maybe I was born knowing I was okay on my own. That would backtrack the story even further. Who knows? I need people like we all do. What I am saying is this book had an effect on me and there has been an identifiable pattern that turns up at other times in my life.

Object: Photos

Story: Family

Photos are an easy choice. I love going through albums and remembering favorite moments with my family. They are a collective timeline of my life, so it’s really not possible to choose just one. Together they tell my story. There are photos of birthdays, holidays, vacations, achievements, picnics, days up at my grandma’s farm, pets, and many special occasions. Every year there was a classic photo of the first day of school. Family experiences and values shape so much of who we become. Looking back at those photos helps me remember those times. Photos of family (and friends who are family) are good storytellers. Perhaps my enjoyment of past photos even points to some of my present interests in photography. Important ideas keep showing up.

Object: Pencils

Story: Teaching and Writing

IMG_1727 I’ve written over twenty years of lesson plans with pencils. Hundreds of kids have used thousands of pencils to demonstrate many levels of learning and understanding. They have borrowed and kept many. Too many. I should have taken out stock in a pencil company. I still prefer a yellow Ticonderoga and get a bit of a rush when I begin to use a newly sharpened pencil with a fresh eraser. I’ve filled diaries and journals as a child and adult. These are great time capsules of years, trips, and things I thought terribly important at the time that are now preserved. Feelings that I never wanted to share anywhere else I could capture with words just for me so I’d remember. Many writing endeavors have been written on my laptop, yet that image of a pencil is a perfect representation for the plans, creativity, and story involved in each of them. Pencils create powerful stories. Pencils don’t have the story, but they are the way the story oozes out, word by word, until something complete and amazing is created.

I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but I’ve heard a single pencil can produce 45,000 words. I don’t doubt that one pencil can create thousands of words. Knowing an intangible quantity awaits inside makes pencils one of the truly powerful and magical objects in the world.

Object: Cells

Story: Cancer

This story sucks.

I remember calling my mom after I had gotten my phone call with the news. She was upset. Then I headed over to her house to show her I really was okay.

I remember the day I told my students I wouldn’t be finishing the rest of the year. I explained I had been seeing a lot of doctors and they had found something wrong with some of my cells that weren’t working the right way. The name for it was cancer. My doctors had a really good plan for me but it meant I had to be away from them. That isn’t exactly where this story started, but it’s where it became common knowledge to a big part of my world beyond my immediate family and a few close friends.

Now, it continues. I marked my 100th treatment at the end of February. I don’t really have the words to express how that number makes me feel. A lot of conflicting emotions overlap in a messy jumble. It’s a juxtaposition of toxicity and life. I’ll keep on keeping on.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

I really hate including this as part of my life’s story.

I’ve argued with myself trying to decide whether to include this part or not.

Me: Maybe I shouldn’t.

Also Me: How could I not?

Me: Don’t give in to it as a factor in your life.

Also Me: Too bad, I really don’t have a lot of moments where I feel truly away from it.

Both of Us: Cancer sucks.

I have worked so hard not to let it define me or become part of my identity. Appointments, treatments, side effects, and other related choices have changed the way I live. I needed to retire. Teaching defined me perhaps more than it should have, but I feel that is something almost innate in my being.

When I decided to blog, I knew sharing about how I’m trying to live well while living with cancer would connect cancer to my life more than I wanted. It’s not a story I wanted to have, but it’s part of my story nonetheless. The image of the pencil also blurs into this story. The teaching story also overlaps. Once again, important ideas keep showing up. I can choose how I tell it by the way I live which is why I’ve chosen to focus on wellness. I have a lot of wellness in me. I want people to see that and see me as me.

Object: Path

Story: Rejuvenation and Future

Paths surrounded by trees are some of my favorite places. Trees re-energize me.

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Path at The Grand Hotel Resort in Point Clear, Alabama.

I am relaxed spending time in nature. From out of nowhere, solutions show up for problems. Something creative happens. Inspiring ideas come to me, whispered by the breeze. The fresh air makes me feel fantastic. Depending where I am, I see turkeys, deer, or cranes. I can’t always see where my path leads and that’s okay. Sometimes I know where I’m going; sometimes I don’t. I’m going somewhere and I choose to believe it’s good.

Many objects make up the story of our lives. Books, photographs, pencils, cells, and paths make up part of my story. These may not be the best objects to choose, but they are what I’ve chosen here. For now, there are many other books to read and photos to take. I have much to write whether with pencils, pens, markers, or keyboards. My story is still being written. Creating an environment where healthy cells thrive and abnormal ones don’t is an important focus. I love being in nature walking familiar paths or exploring new ones.

Ultimately, my story is one where I find a way. Always.

Consider responding:

  • What objects come to mind that could tell part of the story of your life?
  • What special objects hold important memories for you?