What Writers Do

I never planned to write a book about cancer. I was on the other side and still alive, with my own aim: to wake up America through writing. And yet …

A saying exists: a writer gets to live twice. First we live, and then we write about what we have lived. Like a cow that brings up its feed and chews it again, a writer has a second chance to digest experience. The second time is in the notebook or in front of a computer screen. Often the second time is the real life for a writer. It is then we get to claim our existence.

At lunch a friend told me that writing about my ill­ness was a bit crazy. “Cut your losses and go on. You’re restimulating yourself.”

I sat up straight in my seat, “I’m a writer. This is what writers do.”

I wanted to grab a hunk of living again and hold on tight. But it wouldn’t have been genuine if I skipped over what was raw, dark, and painful. Another adage a writer needs to know: the things we avoid have energy. If I ignored suffering, the life of my writing would die. You can’t hold back, hide, disclaim. You have to bare your teeth and go back into the seething heat. If I didn’t write this book, no other book would possibly ever come.

Besides, I wanted to know what happened to me. When I was inside the world of cancer, I was just try­ing to survive. Slam bam—hit by diagnoses, one after the other, that shattered any composure I ever thought I had—hospital rooms, procedures, institutions, fast de­cisions, medicines I never heard of before. I wanted to record this also for the reader: when you go through ex­treme sickness, when everything you know and lived is tossed out the window and glass shatters—I want to say we are not crazy. This too is part of life. Don’t give up. Pay attention. We have to make ourselves larger to include the inconceivable. So many of us imagine—certainly I did—lying peacefully in our own bed during our last days, serenely bidding good-bye to relatives and friends. Good luck. It’s rare.

I felt so out there alone on a ledge. I looked for and needed to hear or read what other people went through, but I could find little about the nitty-gritty experience. I wanted to record my experience as a marker for others, even though everyone’s circumstances will be different.

For me this wasn’t war, something to fight. Disease was another aspect of human life. Could I be in the middle of it, not so much be victorious but actually flower, become more tender, more inside human under­standing? Could it open love? And reflection? Could I stand inside the storm, be drenched and endure, whether into life or into death?

In the Book of Serenity, an ancient Zen text from China, is case 36, “Master Ma Is Unwell.” Given to us to ponder, not only with logic, but with the whole of our being.

Master Ma is sick in bed.

The monastery superintendent stops in and asks, “Master, how is your venerable state these days?”

The Great Teacher looks up and replies, “Sun face buddha, moon face buddha.”

We can be awake on both sides of the coin, in sickness and in health, in light and in the dark. In both states, we can glow.

Find out about upcoming programs with Natalie Goldberg at Kripalu.

Excerpted with permission from Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, © 2018 by Natalie Goldberg. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. shambhala.com

Natalie Goldberg is an author, poet, teacher, and painter. She has written 13 books including the classic Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.

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