Bad Poetry, Mom’s Cancer: Notes Toward a Memoir

I started cleaning out a closet over the weekend. Digging through one of many unruly boxes filled with old manuscripts, I came across a story I wrote in grad school, a thinly veiled piece of autobiographical fiction, meant to be woven seamlessly into a grossly corpulent novel I later gutted and eventually abandoned, about my mom’s cancer. In 1992, when I was applying for colleges, she had a grand mal seizure one morning and was taken to the hospital, where she was diagnosed to have a grapefruit-sized tumor in her brain. While she was in a coma, I skipped school to spend the afternoons in her hospital room, reading Wallace Stevens poems to her out loud. I was in a big Wallace Stevens phase back then, one of my many cliched vices (Jim Morrison, Franzia box wine).

The story has a good ending. She awoke from the coma, had a successful surgery, endured a long, difficult recovery during which she had to relearn how to walk, talk, write, and just about everything else; she even started painting again (and, I might add, with the fervor of someone who must have felt she’d cheated death and didn’t have much longer), and today has been cancer-free for almost twenty years. What strikes me about those first days of her recovery were how vague and misremembered they were to me at the time. It seemed, back then, that I was eavesdropping on someone else’s life, and in a way, of course, I was. I wasn’t the one who was braving an impossible personal tragedy, and I guess I was envious: I wanted to be the one who was hurting, who had a story to tell. Of course I tried to tell her story, raiding her medical files, obsessively jotting down every last onomatopoeiac medical term, slowly accruing my own personal glossary of her cancer, the ugly vocabulary of her diagnosis–frontoparietal anaplastic oligodendroglioma–tick-tocking in my brain without ever exploding. If only it had exploded. Then I might not have continued to bang my head against the cinder-block wall of my frustration, unable to capture the captivity of her chemo in the disfigured stanzas I scribbled on the back of returned Spanish multiple-choice tests and coffee-mug-ringed napkins.

But that was what I did, in my attempt to take her pain away from her: I wrote and rewrote the same fucking poem, the words rearranged, maybe, but the crushing boredom of cancer infiltrating every other line.

I tried writing from her perspective–

I can hear my
husband in the next room watching afternoon basketball when

the phone rings at least five
times and I stumble over to the bathroom door and yell
for him to answer it as I clutch the towel
tight against my body

and I created characters who had the same brain cancer–

They stab my hand with the IV and I feel the hot rush in my veins
and I close my eyes and see white moving dots
like a kaleidoscope but then they go away and everything’s dark.

–but I felt trapped, distant and emotionally disemboweled. I created characters who had the same brain cancer. I even wrote from my own perspective–

I sway shivering over her
cocooned image & watch
deadpan in our
telepathic language
bodies stilled
eyes locked

–but “her / cocooned image”? “Bodies stilled / eyes locked”? Who the fuck was I kidding? The answer, of course, is that I was fooling myself, although I didn’t know it back then. All I knew was that I didn’t like writing about my feelings–I didn’t even know what my feelings were. And, in a way, still don’t. That’s the problem: years have passed, wounds have healed, but I never got a good grasp on the reality of the experience, not in those trite poems or the energetic yet stilted fiction, filled with sterile terminology and overzealous descriptions of MRIs, I later wrote in grad school, like the piece I found in the closet this past weekend. I used to think the more I write about it, the more it will make sense. The more I think about it, the more I will understand. Right? Wrong.

In the decade since grad school, I have written well over a thousand pages, only an embarrassing few of which have been published, the vast majority deleted, redacted or used as kindling, but I haven’t devoted even one single page to the most traumatic event in my life. Why? I suppose it was a conscious decision in the beginning, possibly a reaction to something an old literary hero told me. Quoting an essay T.S. Eliot wrote, he told me I needed to stop writing pretty little sentences and instead focus on the meat and potatoes of the story. It’s good advice, I think, possibly the single most profound writing realization I’ve been forced to make and one I eagerly enforce upon every budding writer I encounter, if given the chance, although I’m quick to point out that my old mentor didn’t exactly follow his own prescription, so. But why avoid my mom’s cancer? Why continue to write fiction, instead of hopping on the memoir bandwagon? I certainly enjoy reading other people’s memoirs, even the one published by my equivocating former mentor. In the months leading up to this past weekend, in fact, when I cleaned out the closet and rediscovered Mom’s cancer, I have been on something of a memoir-reading kick. I’ve reread memoirs I cast aside when they were first published, like Donald Antrim‘s The Afterlife, a pinnacle of the genre, I think. And Sarah Manguso‘s The Two Kinds of Decay. And not only “disease memoirs,” either: I’ve also plowed through the buzzed memoirs that came out this year, notably Half a Life by Darin Strauss and Revolution by Deb Olin Unferth, and Geoff Dyer‘s Out of Sheer Rage, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Into the Wild, and Born Standing Up, and Lit, and pretty much anything else by Mary Karr, and How Fiction Works by James Wood and Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith and…and one of my all-time favorites, a book I try to read once every other year, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. Anything that’s not by Augusten Burroughs: that’s been my dictum. Heck, it’s possible I enjoy reading memoirs more than I enjoy reading novels these days, although that, I’m afraid, has more to do with frustrations I have about my own fiction than the form in general. Novels–and novel-writing–are doing just fine. Just ask Jonathan Franzen.

A year and a half ago, I started a new book, a novel. Unlike my first book–and the two that followed and were widely rejected–this new book is written in the first person. It’s funny, I used to avoid reading novels written in the first person, because I thought, wrongly, it turns out, that they all sounded the same. And I definitely avoided writing a novel in the first person, because, I think, I needed to distance myself from those embarrassing, cliched poems and stories about my mom’s illness, and doing so would only dredge up that earlier failure. But who’d want to continue a legacy like that? It’s possible, of course, that I am only continuing the failure, and this new book, like its bastard brethren, will also be turned down around town, but it’s OK. It might be the first step to writing that book about Mom’s cancer.

One comment on “Bad Poetry, Mom’s Cancer: Notes Toward a Memoir

  1. -

    The process doesn’t seem cliche, or failure, or embarrassing from the outside. How could one write some “meat and potatoes” without chewing first? I’m excited for you and your newest work.

    I Googled “Franzia box wine” to check if the old photo of my friend T is still in the top 10 images. And there it is, top ten, linked as your vice. That’s the path I found to your site. For some inexplicable reason it’s important that this photo stay alive and popular. So thank you.

    Best wishes. Thank you for your candid post.

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