I’m delighted to welcome Katherine Fleet, author of The Secret to Letting Go, first to publish an inspiring guest post on Literary Lightbox. If an illness, life event or something else has halted your writing, her article should give you hope that words will flow again and encourage you to make the most of the supportive community of writers online…
In 2011, at 41 years old, my life was great. I lived in the Caribbean on a beautiful, sunny island with my husband and three kids. An unexpected benefit of our relocation from Canada – I had time to write. I’d joined RWA, taken writing courses, completed three novels, and queried agents. No offers yet, but I was making slow and steady progress.
Then in September, everything changed. I found a lump in my breast. After a battery of tests, the diagnosis was confirmed. I had breast cancer. I’d need a mastectomy followed by six months of chemotherapy. My initial thoughts in those early days were very dark. Everything I believed was important changed, and my thoughts narrowed to one paralysing fear – I don’t want to die and leave my family.
Fortunately, I’m a positive person, and I quickly found a deep, inner certainty that I was going to be okay. I’m not sure where it came from, but it never wavered. Instead, I began to view cancer as a logistical challenge, something I needed to get through, so I could get back to my life as quickly as possible. But the one thing I never expected or planned for was how illness would affect my writing or how the writing community would factor into my recovery.
Coping when creativity evaporates
As most writers know, finding time to write is always a challenge. There are so many competing demands on your attention. So when I discovered that surgery and chemo would put everything else on hold, I naïvely believed this would be great for my writing. While lying in bed recovering, I’d type away on my laptop, using this medically enforced “quiet” time to wrack up the words on my latest work in progress – a silver lining in my cancer cloud.
So, it was hugely disappointing and depressing to find the words wouldn’t come. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t. That creative spark – my muse – had deserted me. Not only that, the chemotherapy stole my words. It’s called “chemo brain” – this inexplicable loss in the ability to come up with even basic words. I’d stare at the screen, trying to remember a word that was just out of reach.
I wondered if my creativity was something fleeting, if maybe my cancer had taken it and it would never return.
Finding a haven in the writing community
But even in these gloomy moments, the writing community gave me some unexpected gifts. In my personal life, everything was about my cancer. It was all people talked about. “How are you feeling? How are the treatments going?” I appreciated their concern and support, but I didn’t want to be the sad and tragic mom with cancer. I wanted to be the mom, wife, friend and writer, who just happened to have cancer. That’s hard though when your hair has fallen out and everyone knows why you’re wearing that bandana on your head.
That’s where the writing community came in. I took online courses. I joined online writing chapters. I started to build my social media platform. Even if I couldn’t write, I could do other things to further my writing career. And among this community, I was just a fellow writer. My cancer wasn’t important. It didn’t define me. Being a part of this writing community gave my life much-needed balance, a counterweight on the other side of the cancer scale.
Getting back to writing
In the end, it took several months following my chemo before the desire to write came back. But it did come back – as strong or maybe even stronger than before.
So in the end, here’s what I learned. Lean on the writing community. They can be an unexpected source of strength and perspective. Be patient and understanding with yourself. Illness affects you not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. So, adjust your goals and expectations to reflect the things you can do.
There are many ways to keep advancing your writing career. Don’t focus on the things you are not up to doing. Take satisfaction from the things you can do, whatever they may be. Also, celebrate every achievement. This was told to me by a very special writing friend – another breast cancer survivor. There is always a new hurdle or challenge coming at you as an author. So celebrate each success and milestone. You deserve it!