Not sure if I’m going to be doing a whole series of cancer poems or if these are just a temporary product of adjusting to my new state. At any rate, I found myself writing this in my head in the middle of the night as I lay unable to sleep. I’m still too close to it to judge whether it’s any good, but I decided to post it anyway.
Lying upon unyielding plastic,
I stretch out my arms,
not to the side like
but above my head
in the age-old sign of surrender.
In the next room,
a technician flips a switch,
sliding me into
a whirring, clicking tunnel,
so a machine can scan my contours
and locate the exact spot
from which a surgeon excavated—
not buried treasure—
but life-threatening malignancy.
That task done,
the tech tattoos three indigo dots,
on my sternum and
each side of my ribcage,
a trinity of blue freckles
to serve as a map for future treatment
and the guiding stars
of my voyage to survival.
New Year’s Day is traditionally considered a time of new beginnings. This year, that construct has a totally different meaning for me.
I thought December 31, 2013, would be the New Year’s Eve that I looked back over the year with great joy because I’d finally published my first novel. Well, life had other plans for that particular date in my life. About mid-day on New Year’s Eve, I received a phone call telling me that I have breast cancer.
The tumor was small, we caught it early, and at this point the prognosis is good. I have another procedure next week to remove a lymph node and biopsy it, and the results of that procedure might change the diagnosis considerably. But for now, I’m assuming that my outlook is good and that we’ll be able to lick this thing with minimally unpleasant treatment.
That said, I don’t really know what’s ahead of me. I plan to keep blogging, but it will probably be less often. I assume my energy levels will flag as I undergo whatever treatment regimen my doctors recommend, and it’s more important to work on my next novel than to post here five times a week.
I do not intend to turn this into a cancer blog. It will still focus on my writing, but I may mention my health as it relates to my life as an author.
And I guess that’s all I really have to say about this right now.
It’s been two weeks since The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte came out, and I’ve been learning what it’s like to be a published novelist rather than an unpublished one.
Some of the things I’ve been doing the last fourteen days include sending out review copies, scheduling signings, autographing books, and getting the beginnings of reader reaction. Two friends have already finished reading the novel, and their responses were very enthusiastic. The hardest thing about remaining unpublished all these years has been not having much of an audience beyond my beta readers. I always imagined what it would be like to have readers say they loved my novel, and now that’s starting to happen. Admittedly, so far I’ve only heard from friends, and they are predisposed to like it, but even so, the comments I’ve received so far have helped make all the years of effort seem worthwhile. Now I’m looking forward to getting more objective responses.
One thing has surprised me is how much I enjoy signing books. I’ve never really fantasized about giving out autographs, but I take a lot of pleasure in making a book personal for my readers. “My readers.” A phrase I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to say. One advantage of achieving this childhood dream a little later in life is that I appreciate it so much.
Sorry if this post borders on the gooey. I’ll be back to my usual self tomorrow.
A few months ago, I had a strange experience as a writer. I woke up on the morning of my birthday with this poem in my mind. Apparently, I had written it in a dream.
In the elongated shadows,
cast by the setting sun,
I stoop to pick handfuls
of beans for supper.
The rest of the crop have grown
bloated and fibrous,
the product of distracted neglect.
In the clapboard house behind me,
my sister sits by a window,
dreaming of some future escape.
Our father wants her to marry
a farmer as past his prime
as these beans,
a man who will never be
a strong support
for such a tender,
And I, rooted to this land
by love and obligation,
am as mute and
helpless to intervene
as a stump.
I am the heron
standing in the shallows
of a man-made lake,
balanced on bamboo legs,
feet splayed firmly
on a precarious bed of eroded stones.
Focused on the water,
waiting so intently for a sweet-fleshed fish
that I do not heed the humans
gawking on the bank.
Beneath the shimmering surface
just a flicker of racing shadow.
Plunge toward it, beak open…
Sudden displacement of water
stirs up a silty murk
yet cannot obscure the vision
of my future.
Melinda over at Enchanted Spark invited me to be a guest blogger today. Please stop by her blog and read my post about the inspiration for my novel. And while you’re at it, check out her posts as well. She has some interesting things going on, including a writing contest!
I had an interesting insight Thursday morning. I must admit that, grateful as I am to have a novel coming out next Monday, I still tend to berate myself for not achieving this goal earlier. Sometimes, I think if I had just lived my life differently, I would have published a book sooner.
However, as I meditated on Thanksgiving, I was gazing out a different window than I usually do, looking at a bush with a strong central trunk and many, many branches—all of them bare because of the season. Suddenly understanding hit. Yes, perhaps I could have gone straight up that center trunk from the base to the tip, but I didn’t. What I did instead was to scoot out on one branch to gather flowers. In a different season, I scooted out on a second branch to collect fruit. Another time I crawled out on a third branch to take in a new view. Yet, each time I returned to the center trunk and climbed a little higher.
And so it went throughout the years and across the cycle of the seasons. I could have tried to go straight up that trunk to the pinnacle of the tree, but I chose a more meandering path, and because of it, my arms and my heart carry many more treasures. I think that both my life and my writing benefit because of that.
I mentioned the other day that art was what kept me going doing a period when I almost gave up my writing. I’m grateful to my art teacher Richard Halstead for helping me keep that creative spark alive and also for one other thing. The portrait of Betsy on the cover of my novel is my own work. I created it by working from a couple of the existing portraits painted during her lifetime.
There is also a third reason that my art is important to me. Because I’m a freelance educational writer as well as a novelist, I used my verbal skills all the time. Sometimes that part of my brain just needs a rest. A couple of weeks ago, I deliberately took a couple of hours to work on a drawing just to find a little balance. It’s not much more than a sketch, but here it is:
I wrote this poem four years ago, when I was struggling with the temptation to give up writing. I nearly did give it up. I began to study painting intead, and I barely wrote for at least a year. The artwork, however, was enough to keep the flame flickering, and two and a half years ago, I started writing The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. Now, in two weeks, I will have achieved my lifelong dream of having a novel published.
If you have a calling, think long and hard before you ever decide to give it up.
In a rocky cleft
beneath the willows,
burns a quavering blue flame
that I alone must tend,
arcing my body into a canopy
when the rain pelts
or smothering snow falls.
In all weathers I must feed the fire
scraps of paper, broken pencils,
and fingernails torn as I scratch and claw
through the bricklike clay of my spirit,
hardened by years of rejection,
yet fertile still when gently watered.
Dig through unyielding earth for
wood chips, abandoned cardboard,
any and all refuse
that might feed this insatiable muse,
I am proud and pleased to reveal the cover for my novel:
Here is the synopsis:
As a clever girl in stodgy, mercantile Baltimore, Betsy Patterson dreams of a marriage that will transport her to cultured Europe. When she falls in love with and marries Jerome Bonaparte, she believes her dream has come true—until Jerome’s older brother Napoleon becomes an implacable enemy.
Based on a true story, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte is a historical novel that portrays this woman’s tumultuous life. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, known to history as Betsy Bonaparte, scandalized Washington with her daring French fashions; visited Niagara Falls when it was an unsettled wilderness; survived a shipwreck and run-ins with British and French warships; dined with presidents and danced with dukes; and lived through the 1814 Battle of Baltimore. Yet through it all, Betsy never lost sight of her primary goal—to win recognition of her marriage.
Our publication date is December 2. The book can be preordered here.