I've kept a journal, off and on, starting in second grade when I wrote at the beginning of the entries "Dear Kitty," copying Anne Frank's salutation to her imaginary correspondent. In early January 2007 I typed notes into my journal, stored in my computer, about characters in a novel that I'd been writing/not writing/half-writing for 16 years. I wrote about the brother's suffering while volunteering in El Salvador and the sister's suffering at home. I wrote about their interest in philosopher Simone Weil and her suffering and how I felt personally affronted because she'd turned from Judaism to Catholicism. I wrote: "The ones who gaze on the crucifixion because there is nothing they know in Judaism to contain their despair."
You get the drift: suffering.
In my own life I was in the middle of appointments for an ultrasound and a biopsy. It was possible I had breast cancer. I wrote: "There is a delight? Can I say that? That I'm center stage? That something dramatic has happened ... . That's what it is. That's what I don't want to tell anybody. That I'm important because the killer has lodged in me."
In a journal you confess. The journal offers the chance to go deeply, to get at the root. In a journal, for your audience of one, you strip yourself down as close to the bone as possible. You are seeking your authentic self.
Many years ago the poet Carolyn Kizer gave an open workshop at Northwestern, and she critiqued a girl's poem that was a letter to a friend. It was bland. What you need to do, Kizer said, is to write a letter you would never send.
This was a revelation to me, though I've found since that it's commonplace writerly advice, which I've given as well since. It's helpful, because there is tension and honesty in what you want to keep hidden. The reader delights in the telling of secrets. What no one must know. That's why there's power in writer and poet Dorothy Parker's stories, like "The Waltz," which I'd memorized for some junior high speech tournament. The narrator/monologuist is asked to dance. She thinks: "I most certainly will not dance with you, I'll see you in hell first." But she accepts. Her words are discordant with her actions, and so we laugh at the disparity. And in recognition.
A blog, a web log, can look both inward and outward, because it's theoretically available to every single person on the planet who's online. In January 2007 I had heard of blogs but had never read one. I knew reporters who had to write them so that their newspapers could gallop after readers who'd migrated to the web, and I felt sorry that they had to do extra work.
Then, as my breasts were tested and retested, I decided that if I had cancer, I'd start a blog. I knew the diagnosis would change my life, step by step, and that the steps would be new to me. It was a new world, and I needed to understand it, and I understand the world by writing about it.
More than three years later, I have 477 entries on CancerBitch.blogspot.com. I wrote it for myself, writing below each day's date, and I spent hours revising so that my posts would be interesting to my readers, whoever they might be. It was a journal with benefits. I wrote about mortality: " ... I still can't fathom what life would be like without me in it, the way I couldn't understand how the school days could go on normally when I was home sick." And: "We know we're here only for an eye blink of time, but everything is so important to us because that eye blink is all we have ... . It matters that we read the ancients because it makes us feel connected and immortal through what I think of as chewing on the immortal."
I wrote to amuse, too. I wrote about the medical student who thought I had "five boys" instead of "fibroids." I wrote a couple of entries about telling; I called one entry "How NOT To Tell Your Class About Your Breast Cancer": "Expect your voice to be calm. It will not be. It will break. You will be in danger of crying. Tell them you will find substitutes for any classes you'll miss. Tell them you're going to talk to a surgeon the next day but be unable to continue, leaving them stunned." And "Telling": "The cashier at Trader Joe's who asks, ‘How was your week?' Do you say, ‘Well, I had my first MRI, and I'm going to find out if I have cancer in my second breast?' "
And — I know how this sounds — I wrote about the fun I had with cancer. I wrote about the Farewell to My Left Breast party. I posted pictures of my mohawk that lasted one week, and of my scalp decorated with flower designs and peace signs and the message: U.S. Out of Iraq.
I wrote about the worst part of the mastectomy, which was the aftermath, living with two plastic tubes stuck into my chest, both ending with hollow bulbs. The whole contraption would fill with blood and other fluids, which I had to empty, measure and throw away.
I read about Elizabeth Edwards' cancer recurrence and felt uneasy. It took me a while to figure out how to write about her, and I came up with a rant, "Why I Hate Elizabeth Edwards," starting with, "Because she might die," and acknowledged, "I know hate is fear. ... I hate this cancer, this strange overgrowth inside me that is against my own interest," but along the way criticized her and her husband, John, because they "do not talk [publicly] ... about the possible causes of breast cancer. About pesticides and pollution ... ."
They do not sound like Rachel Carson, "who warned us in the 1960s about the environment failing us and moreover us failing the environment, and she was scorned and is now a secular saint."
I wrote about Breast Cancer Action, an advocacy group that studies environmental carcinogens and questions the feel-good pink-ribbon campaigns. I wrote about the absurdity of eating pink M&M's in order to support cancer prevention. I wrote about the meaning of shaved heads, about gender, public transportation, my antidepressants, Jewish holidays, friends who dropped me, racial disparity in cancer treatment.
I wrote my heart out. Later I read excerpts in a series on Chicago Public Radio.
Research by psychologist James Pennebaker has shown that keeping a journal is therapeutic. When I wrote daily in my blog, I had no need of a cancer support group. I wasn't even in therapy, which is my wont. I felt listened to, even on days when friends, as well as strangers such as Colon Cancer Cowgirl and The Fifty-foot Woman, didn't give feedback in the comments section.
It's more than three years since my surgery. My hair has grown down to my shoulders, and my cancer is still gone, as far as anyone can tell. I keep up the blog desultorily. There's not the same desperate urgency as when I was in treatment. I was lucky to get an edited version published. And I still have a love-hate relationship with that novel-in-progress. The characters have been waiting all this time. Friends have suggested I give the sister breast cancer. But she has enough trouble already.
S.L. Wisenberg (J79) is the author of the nonfiction book The Adventures of Cancer Bitch (University of Iowa Press, 2009) as well as the essay collection Holocaust Girls: History, Memory & Other Obsessions (Bison Books, 2006). She is co-director of the School of Continuing Studies' master's programs in creative writing. She lives in Chicago.
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