I don’t write for a living. I am a writing teacher by trade. As I’ve said before, I came to writing to save myself. You might have heard me talk about how my wife encouraged me to start writing when bedtime with our twins got tricky. Writing kept me sane when the kids demanded constant supervision. Instead of fretting about losing work time, I could get ahead in plotting the story. While parenting certainly comes with many joys, my kids are getting older and pushing for autonomy which causes quite a bit of tension in our household. One of the things I love about writing is that I always get my way. My characters do and say whatever I want.
And what I want most is for my sister to live.
Three years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Though she’s done everything right, followed more directions than my kids ever have, the cancer has metastasized. And there’s nothing I can do. Just before she was diagnosed, she divorced. She was supposed to get her life back, but cancer stole it from her.
But I write. And suddenly a title hit me. Kat’s Nine Lives. Cats have nine lives. Why couldn’t my sister?
We’d already been kicking around the idea for a book that used our childhood home as the scene for a wedding. She had actually hosted a wedding there for one of her friends. I called my sister with the title and a new idea. She’d be the protagonist.
This is not a book about my sister having cancer. It’s not really even a book about my sister. But it’s a book where my sister can have the hair she always wanted. The happiness she deserved.And her breasts. I pitched the idea to Bella and started writing. There are too many unknowns and way too many stretches of scary time between blood draws and results. Her treatment journey can feel like being trapped on a highway, and the book has provided an exit. Together we take the offramp to explore: character names, places for romantic dates, the best eighties songs to kiss to.
When pain from the secondary tumor on her spine sent her to the hospital yet again, my boss sent me home. I grabbed my laptop and spent the day with my sister, mostly writing as she rested. Her doctor outlined her choice of surgery or treatment, and we sat there. My sister, her boyfriend, my mom and I wrestled those options with her. My phone chimed a message, and I saw that it was from Bella. “They’re excited about the story and want to send a contract!” In that moment, precious reprieve.
I have never written a book in such a short time span. Some days, my sister and I would text ideas back and forth, and only later my mom would fill me in on how my sister was struggling. I remember one night so vividly. Something my mom had told me tipped me into tears that wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t get my mind to stop spinning with fear and worry. The story stepped in. Like a lifeline, it inserted itself in a way that felt physical. Think. Figure out the plot point. How are you going to solve this problem? And I was finally able to sleep.
Writing has helped me navigate so many of life’s stresses, and I wondered whether this was true for other writers as well. So I pitched the topic for this year’s GCLS Conference in Las Vegas, and it was accepted. I am so excited to hear Susan Meagher, KG MacGregor, Georgia Beers and Mickey Brent explore this topic further. Come see us in Vegas on Thursday July 5th at 11:40. Share with us about a story that felt like a lifeline during a very difficult time.