This past March, while at AWP’s annual writing conference, I received confirmation that the tumor removed from my left breast two weeks prior was in fact cancerous. The cells were early stage and noninvasive, but the surgery had not yielded a clean margin. A month ago I had a second surgery to excise the residual cancer cells. Again the surgery did not yield the desired margin. Suddenly I was faced with a time-sensitive decision about radiation that plunged me into the trash compactor scene in Star Wars, my urgency closing in, Chewbacca sounds escaping my throat. Two weeks ago I contacted a nurse “oncology breast navigator” for guidance, and she said, “The most important thing for you to do right now is to be patient with yourself and give yourself time and space to make this decision.”


Patience? Time and space?


A few days ago, while working on an essay so fledgling it did not yet have a working title, I found myself goading the writing process, trying to hurry the essay into being because I thought it was taking too much time. Never mind that I did not yet know what this essay was about, exactly, what deeper truths it was culling from the fragments of memory rising to the page. What if I were to apply the nurse navigator’s words to my writing and give this essay the time and space it needed to emerge? What might I discover about my deeper emotional truths and, by extension, the universal truths they carry? I decided to give the essay a rest. Besides, it was a beautiful weekend, a perfect opportunity to feed my roses.


I had picked up some organic plant food from a local garden center a few days earlier because my roses looked scrawny, I thought, in comparison to the lush roses in full bloom next door. My neighbor, Amy, a seasoned gardener, happened outside as I was scraping back mulch and landscape fabric, sprinkling rose food into the soil. I asked her if the black landscape fabric might, in fact, be preventing my roses from growing faster. “They’re so scrawny,” I said.


She knelt next to me in the rose bed, took one of the twiggy branches in hand. “When did you plant these?” she asked, the way a doctor might inquire about the onset of symptoms.


“A year ago.”


“Why, Marilyn!” she said, “You’re just being impatient is all. You need to give these roses time.”


Isn’t it uncanny how our mindsets—whether we are aware of them or not—determine how we see things? How, in this case, impatience affected the very way I approached not only decisions about my health but also about my writing and my roses?


In her excellent craft book Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, Judith Barrington writes, “Living a conscious and reflective life is a prerequisite for writing a memoir of substance.” The lessons we are called on to glean from the circumstances of our lives must extend to our writing practice. Why? Because the two are inseparable facets of the same conscious life we are living. Our writing practice and our life unfold in tandem, handing us the situations we need—if we are paying attention—in order to write the next essay or memoir, to make the next life decision. When we acknowledge and shift our limiting mindsets, we approach our writing with a new level of awareness that enables us to make sense of our deeper truths, which transforms both us and our readers.


What well-worn mindsets is your life nudging you to acknowledge and shift? Could your writing, like mine, benefit from patience? Might extending patience to your writing practice move you toward a more “conscious and reflective life” that ultimately results in writing of substance? What would it mean for you to extend to your writing the time and space necessary to fully realize your unique expression of truth?


After mulling the nurse navigator’s words to be patient with myself, I postponed the start dates of my summer Writing Women’s Lives™ classes. I took some deep breaths. And from this newfound patience I made the decision to proceed with radiation. Treatment begins today at 4:00 EST and will continue for six weeks. I am sad about this. And I am scared. But I am giving myself time and space to process these feelings so that I might learn the lessons radiation has to teach me.


Later today, after my first radiation treatment, I will water the roses, and I will admire how far they’ve come since this time last year rather than see them as scrawny in comparison to Amy’s roses.


And that fledgling essay? It has since acquired a working title: “Radiation.”


To living a conscious and reflective life that reaps writing of substance,


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