How to Write a Memoir While Dying
Dan O'Brien on Cancer and Honesty
Writers are often advised to write as if we are dying. Awake to our mortality, the theory goes, we will write with urgency and acuity about what matters. We will write honestly, vulnerably, bravely without fear of judgement. We will write for the pure readers: ourselves and our loved ones. We will write better.
I don’t know if my writing improved, but I did write differently after I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in early 2016. Luckily (good luck nesting inside bad luck) the particulars of my diagnosis meant that my cancer was treatable—potentially even “curable,” according to my oncologist. I was too frightened to research the statistics for my survival. (“Single digits” I overheard a nurse murmur to my wife, which was more than I needed to know.) During previous periods of trauma—my adolescence with a suicidal sibling, my early thirties when I was disowned by my parents, the six months preceding my diagnosis when my wife was being treated for breast cancer—writing had been an egress from drastic circumstance, a creative displacement of my anguish into an arena in which I could almost believe that I had some control over the unfolding and enfolding catastrophe. With nine months of surgeries and chemotherapy ahead of me, I turned to the page again. But now I was writing with the knowledge that I might have only months to live.
Understandably I wrote urgently. There was no time to daydream or procrastinate, to allow my inspirations and curiosities to germinate. No time to finesse each and every word. Overnight, my perfectionistic impulses vanished. With an obviously imperfect body it was impossible to believe in perfectible literature. I forgave myself, or forgave my writing its flaws, and felt instead a desperate trust that the crux of what I was communicating was enough.
Writing honestly and vulnerably was easier than it had been, knowing that very possibly I wouldn’t be around to receive the disparagement (or praise, or indifference) of others. And what did it matter anyway, the appraisal of a stranger, in comparison to the intimate threat I was facing? Illness was certainly making me a better writer in terms of the so-called “business” of writing, as I was submitting my new poems without caring much if they were accepted or declined. I wasn’t seeking publication in order to assuage my ego; I was hoping to contribute to an erosion of the taboo of cancer, and to send a dispatch of commiseration from my maybe-deathbed to those similarly distressed. Lastly, I wished to write a testament, an apologia, an account and an accounting of not solely my current plight but of my life altogether. And for this I found I needed prose.
During treatment I was besieged by vivid, uncanny memories of my childhood that I needed to capture in language before they burned away to smoke—before I was smoke. As I wrote I began to conceive of the story of my emotionally and verbally abusive upbringing as a reckoning with myself. My earlier attempts at writing a memoir had been enervated and limited by the supposition that my parents and siblings would read it; I was writing for them, and my focus was clouded, my tone tainted, by my anger. With cancer I no longer worried about my parents and siblings; they weren’t there with me in the hospital, they didn’t call or email, or anything. They were gone for good. I was on my own, writing to confront the formative injury to my psyche, the unhealed wound that seemed to lead metaphorically to my cancer. Writing honestly about and for myself became a form of magical thinking. If I can heal my childhood, I thought, perhaps I can heal my cancer.How has my writing changed since I have survived?
I wasn’t merely compiling a document of recollections. I was disturbed and intrigued; many were memories I thought I had forgotten long ago, and I wondered why my subconscious was reminding me. Writing inquisitively revealed many truths about myself and my family: there was more humor and happiness in my childhood, for example, than I was accustomed to admitting. Memories of the pain inflicted by my parents were tempered with an enlarged empathy for the trauma they themselves had suffered and inherited, and I forgave them in the sense that my anger dissipated. I remembered that I loved them once and that I loved them still, even if my love is inseparable from sorrow.
My memoir From Scarsdale wasn’t written for the family that disowned me, but for the family I had made. If my life ended early, my wish was that my only child, who was only two years old when I was in treatment, would nevertheless know her father, his faults and aspirations, the lessons of his childhood. If she couldn’t hear me tell my story as she grew older, she could at least one day read this book.
My cancer treatment finished in December of 2016, when I was informed that I possessed “no evidence of disease.” Survivor’s Notebook, my new poetry collection, was written about the aftermath phase of recovery, when my wife and I were circling back to life with apprehension but also with hope, as we strove to integrate the epiphanies of our near-death passage with the necessary (and welcome) mundaneness of parenting and careers.
How has my writing changed since I have survived? I revise a bit more, again. I take more time, as I may have more time at my disposal. I let myself cultivate an idea, if patience is what the idea requires. When writing autobiographically, I take some additional care with what I choose to reveal about myself and others, because I just might have the privilege of living with the consequences of my candidness.
I was disappointed, at first, by the resurgence of my ego: insecurity, competitiveness, grandiosity and self-loathing. But the appetites of the ego mean that I am feeling like an animal again, a heart-beating and breathing human being with concerns about earning a living from my writing and teaching, with the desire for the affirmation of my peers. It’s natural: my ego tells me that I am alive.
But in the act of writing I try to retain what I have learned: urgency and honesty, the pure reader of self and loved ones; returning to the core questions of my life as my subjects; contentment in the composition, regardless of outcome; intolerance for the illusions of perfection and success. When fear about cancer is sparked and mortality seems again uncomfortably close, I spin my fear into a challenge: How can this fear reawaken me to the present moment? And I am not asking myself for an awareness that will improve my writing necessarily. I am asking for a clear perception of the wonder of my now ten-year-old daughter’s afternoon boredom, of my wife’s slight drowsiness after dinner, of the dusty moonlight in the window across from our bed—a bed I can rest in and again rise from.
Dan O’Brien’s memoir From Scarsdale: A Childhood, is available from Dalkey Archive Press.