Natalie Serber: Beyond the Margins
Natalie Serber shares excerpts from an essay she recently wrote for Beyond the Margins, a blog about the craft of writing and the business of publishing.
Write On Through to the Other Side: When Your Character’s Diagnosis Becomes Your Own
I clearly remember the day I gave my character, Mona Brown, her breast cancer diagnosis. I’d been writing a novel about Mona and her family, a husband and twin daughters, who moved from Portland to the rural community of Boring, Oregon in the hopes that they could protect their girls from the perilous teen trifecta—drug use, early sexual activity, and bullying. Since life and novels are rife with complications, you can imagine that things don’t turn out as Mona hoped.
About six months in to the writing, the book wasn’t going well. I couldn’t understand why Mona had such little trust in the world. Why was she unable to grasp the golden ring of confidence that things ultimately work out? Not in the rosy Polly Anna glow, but in the deep immutable sense that she and her family had the mettle to make it through any trial. What had pushed her into this fearful, dark corner? I decided that the cause had to spring from Mona’s childhood… Aha! Her mother must have died when she was a young girl. Yes, having lost a mother in an accident could deeply undermine the feeling that the world is a benevolent place that tenderly holds the people you love. And yet, this loss didn’t seem enough. I clearly remember sitting at my desk when another thought struck me… Oh, of course, she’s recovering from breast cancer. She’s afraid that she, like her mother, will die before she can see her girls through to adulthood. She is afraid that like her, her girls will be motherless. It made sense. For just as Mona was losing her breasts and facing her mortality, her thirteen-year-old daughters were blossoming into their sexuality, burgeoning with life and power they did not understand. What a dreadful and amazing time that would be. What fertile territory for a novel.
The writing was going well. I had a full draft and I was making my way through a revision when another day burned a hole in my memory. The day I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It happened the year I turned fifty, the year I published my first book, the year my youngest child went off to college. It was supposed to be my year of celebration, of immersion into my work, of embracing my empty-next life stage and instead I’d been pushed into my own dark corner. My fear was immutable, dense and heavy. In no particular order I feared merging into traffic, death and what it would mean to my family, loss of joy, suffering, chemotherapy, darkness, silence, and, most punishing, I was afraid of myself. I had given Mona breast cancer. I got breast cancer. Ergo I had conjured up my illness. I was prescient, powerful, in possession of some sort of precognition. Suddenly my novel was very, very close to the bone. I was afraid of my own dark thoughts. I was paralyzed. I could no longer write.
When I complained about all of this to a friend she said to me, “Get real. You gave your character something incredibly common, not some rare tropical illness. That you got it too, well it’s terrible and I’m sorry, but it doesn’t mean you’re prescient. It’s almost the same as giving your character the chickenpox.”
I have been given the gift of time. I’m two years out from my diagnosis. I feel good. I have made some changes in my life that give me the patina of control, enough to say I am doing everything I can to stay healthy and well. But I struggle at my writing desk every day. I feel Mona’s pain exquisitely. I don’t want to dwell there any longer, and yet, I cannot walk away. I cannot leave this manuscript in a drawer and never look back. It’s part of me.
Natalie Serber teaches fiction writing in the Department of English at Marylhurst University. She is the author of the story collection Shout Her Lovely Name, on the New York Times’ list of 100 Notable Books of 2012.