Guest post by Anna Leahy
When my ARCs—advance review copies—of Tumor arrived in the mail, I posted on Facebook, “This was the easiest and most difficult book to write.” I’ve been thinking about what I meant by that statement and how writing can be both easy and difficult at once.
In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell claims, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy.” This assertion suggests that writers do what comes easily and that we tackle book projects that are self-serving. Later in the same paragraph, Orwell claims, “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.” This statement suggests that writers invite nearly overwhelming challenge into our lives in the form of writing, which doesn’t sound self-serving at all. So, I am not the first writer to have asserted that writing is both easy and difficult simultaneously.
I’ve written before about why I write. I’m especially interested in the question of why I—or anyone—writes this, now.
Here’s why I wrote Tumor. My father was diagnosed with liver cancer just as I was turning sixteen, likely the long-term consequence of his work during his requisite military service decades earlier. My mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when I was forty-six and on a one-semester sabbatical from my academic job so that I could focus on writing, though, of course, I had not planned for that time to be the foundation for this book. Statistically, according to the American Cancer Society, one in three women and one in two men will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their—in our—lives. My parents were two for two. I belong to a cancer family.
So, Tumor is personal. I am the vain and selfish writer Orwell acknowledges. I believed that my family’s cancer story was enough, at least to get started, at least for myself. In her version of “Why I Write,” Joan Didion describes the writer as “a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.” Yes, the work of this book absorbed me completely, and I’m especially grateful for a residency at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony that allowed for the luxury of becoming completely absorbed by arranging words into sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. The sentences mattered to me. The sentences made sense, in fact created sense in their grammar and sound. Didion goes on, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Yes, I wrote Tumor in order to understand what cancer means for me and, by extension, for so many of us even though each iteration of cancer is individual.
The writing process was sometimes exhausting, draining my energy in ways I had not quite experienced before. The word exhaust comes from the Latin meaning to use up. Indeed, this book used me up—and that felt strangely good. At times, I pushed against the limits of my capacity to hold disparate ideas in my mind and weave together science, history, culture, and language. What exhausts can also exhilarate. At times, fingers skimming the keyboard, tears leaked down my face. That experience of weeping while writing was new and unpredictable, as memories flickered in my peripheral view when I was looking at something else to see what it means. I kept writing sentences.
I can’t help but think that the Object Lessons series offered me the form that I hadn’t realized I needed. Until I understood that a tumor is the object that is us, I had no idea how to figure out what I was thinking and what cancer means. Once I wrote the words “Tumor is the object that is you”—in the initial proposal—everything started making sense. Tumor has been necessary writing for me, the writing that I couldn’t not do.
Anna Leahy is Director of the MFA in Creative Writing, Director of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity, and a Professor of English at Chapman University, USA. Her publications include the poetry collection Aperture, the co-written cultural memoir Generation Space, the scholarly collection What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing, and Tumor, now available from Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series.