existential crisis

“What, exactly, am I doing?”

In recent weeks, this question has been echoing through my mind.  A few possible explanations for this existential crisis:  summertime.  Lately, the heat in Philadelphia has been otherworldly, leaving me wrung out like a dishrag at day’s end.  It’s often too hot for a run, even at 6 AM, and the endorphin deficit leaves me cranky and out of whack. Evening comes, and after walking the dog and having a dinner and a glass of wine, I am cooked.  Not exactly a routine conducive to blogging productivity.

When I am not drained from the heat and humidity, in the those rare moments of clear skies and cooler air, I am either joyfully watering my fledgling garden, lacing up my sneakers or otherwise reveling in the upside of the summer months.  Again, not the best environment for establishing writerly discipline.

Another possible culprit:  the First Descents blog.  Recently, my FD family paid me an enormous compliment and asked me to take charge of the blog on their site.  Most of the content is provided for me; I just have to dress it up with some pretty words and a link or picture or two.  It’s not terribly time-consuming, but it gives me a chance every other day or so to know that I am actively doing something to give a little bit back to this organization that I love so dearly, and to which I owe my life.

But there are only so many hours a day to devote to WordPress, and I see that I’ve been neglecting SEE EMILY PLAY.  Whooops.  Definitely not part of the plan.

Why do I write here?  It’s been almost a year since I started keeping my thoughts in this format, and it’s starting to feel like it’s time to evaluate what, exactly, I am doing.  It’s been an amazing year, a year that has seen my world burst open with love and possibility thanks to First Descents and all of the incredible people who have entered my life.  Two FD camps; 5K’s, 8 and 10K’s; last weekend, I biked 66.2 miles  – on my own, if you don’t count the several thousand other strangers riding with me – for the American Cancer Society.  I’ll be doing 150 miles in September for the MS Society.  I’ve got my eye trained squarely on the Vermont City Marathon next Memorial Day – to run either as part of a two-team relay with my aunt, or a five person person team with other family.  A year ago, I didn’t think I would be able to achieve any of these things.

Adrenaline, and the joy of feeling my body slim down, grow stronger and more forceful, has become a major preoccupation, providing a profound source of pride and sense of accomplishment.  So, too, though, has the time I have spent alone, trying to order the thoughts that enter my mind, the mind of a still-young woman trying to rebuild her life after cancer, to understand how the world looks now, closing in on three years after diagnosis.

But what, exactly, am I doing?

I’ve had friends, family and fellow survivors say variations on the following:  You should write a book.  For a long time, I found this sentiment flattering, because for a long time, I just wrote words that no one ever read.  I always thought I had a certain flair for writing, but it wasn’t until the birth of my blog that I was able share my words with an audience – no matter how small – and benefit from positive feedback.  Of course I should write a book!  I’m a good writer.  Shouldn’t all good writers write books?


It’s one thing to sit down for a half hour once in awhile and bang out a few hundred words, ruminating on the day’s events, or turning over an idea that gets stuck in my mind. It’s something else entirely to bring focus and discipline to bear, and try to get at the essence of something sustained and substantial.

A few weeks ago, I came across a piece in the New York Times about patient memoirs, and the therapeutic value of writing about illness.  In the end, I found the piece, written by an MD, disheartening, and it made me reconsider what, exactly, the value of my writing is to me, or anyone else.  The author noted:

Few of these efforts rise to the level of great literature, but that may be beside the point. Should memoirs of illness be held to the same standards as other writing? Or do reader and writer form a different relationship when the health crisis of one becomes the theater of the other, a relationship in which a reviewer has very little business meddling?

I haven’t written my book yet, but if I did, this author made me think, would it really be just a self-indulgent exercise, a form of therapy that is just about me, “working out my issues,” rather than a meaningful contribution to the human conversation about life and death?

My husband and I have talked many times about the vague notion of me writing a book:  what would it look like?  Fiction?  Non-fiction?  Memoir?  We have puzzled over ways to get started; he told me about one of his favorite young writers who sets a words-per-week goal for herself and displays a counter on her blog showing whether or not she’s meeting her objectives.  It reminds me of the wisdom of a favorite old improv acting teacher:  “Don’t talk, just do.”  If you want to write, write.  Write a lot.  After you have a giant heap of words in front of you, worry about giving it shape, having it make sense. But produce the raw material.  Otherwise, you’ll never get anywhere.  Paralysis by analysis.

I could, perhaps, go all the way back to D-Day, late November, 2007, and re-trace every agonizing step of my cancer journey, up to the present day.  It would be difficult, enlightening and perhaps even meaningful, in some way – maybe to the next young woman who, thanks to cancer, is robbed of her fertility at the precise moment she’s trying to conceive.

Or, I could just start throwing words down, every day, a little at a time, and keep trying to figure out what my life means now, in the aftermath of that nightmare.

Either way, I hope you’ll stick with me for the journey.

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4 Responses to existential crisis

  1. Sarah says:

    right on. can’t wait to read it, even if it’s a theme-less jumble of disconnected paragraphs. you’re good, you.

  2. You should read Kelly Corrigan’s work – kind of a nice blend of memoir and survival guide. She did a follow-up book that had nothing to do with cancer. Another great resource is Betsy Lerner’s “The Forest For The Trees,” about the writer’s life in general. I’ve also been a longtime fan of Joseph Campbell, who writes about story and myth and the storyteller’s role in society. He kind of helped me find a direction and approach to my book.

  3. Allison D says:

    Darling, do it! You’re insights and talent combine to make a wonderful gift for all of us lucky enough to read your work, however you choose to share it. xoxoxo

  4. I’m here, reading, listening and understanding.

    You are relevant.

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