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Coming out better in the end

I just wrote the hardest article I’ve ever written. A mom I was talking to at a party suggested an idea that sounded great: write about how families cope when a parent gets a life-threatening illness. And the idea was great. But it was a lot of work.

First of all, you just don’t want to harass families who are going through this and say, hey, how about you put everything aside and talk to me about it? I did contact some people who are in the thick of it, and I am not surprised that I didn’t end up interviewing them. They were very nice, and I appreciate that they didn’t tell me to go away, but I didn’t end up being able to talk to them.

I did talk to two women who went through, frankly, harrowing illnesses that would leave many of us quivering like jelly and sorry for ourselves. Neither of them seemed sorry for herself. I always appreciate talking to people who have done hard things and came out the better for it. It reminds me that my instinct to run and hide from hard experiences is not always a good instinct. Yes, it’s true that I’m not going to go out and seek a bad experience just to say I had it (and yes, I have known people who do that!).

But it’s so important to remember that all of our experiences shape us, and we get to choose how to respond to that. On the one hand, you have people who go through serious difficulties and learn from it (John McCain comes to mind). Then you have people who go through serious difficulties and it makes them sick (Cary Stayner comes to mind). Not that I voted for McCain, but I’d rather react like him, if I have the choice.

The other difficulty in writing the article was sticking to the realities of the print world: 1100 words is all I get. I had introspective, fascinating, creative conversations with four women — how do you fit that into 1100 words?

A journalist friend once showed me her portfolio of clips. She showed me the articles she had been most proud of…before publication. She said that the problem with sending clips to prospective employers was that so little that she wrote was published in its original form. She, too, had trouble keeping it short. Unfortunately, in her opinion, the newspaper editor cut out all the good stuff.

My inner editor sits on my shoulder and whispers in my ear while I type. “Watch that counter going up,” she says, nodding at the “Words” box at the bottom of the window. “Do you really need that quote?” she asks of my favorite quote that doesn’t actually fit the article. “Don’t blame me!” she says testily. “It’s not MY fault you have to keep to 1100 words!”

Sometimes I follow the writing advice that you should stuff your internal editor in a drawer and just write to your heart’s content. Other times I listen to my editor and produce a clean piece on first writing. In any case, it’s hard. I want to do justice to the great things that people told me. I want my readers to get a sense of the full conversation, though I can only put in pieces. I try to summarize complex ideas into phrases that stitch the piece together. I sit and play with verbs — does that one make it seem too trivial? — does that one imply something different than she meant?

OK, I admit that I think too much!

Ultimately, writing about other families is interesting and mind-opening to me. What seems like the easiest subject may end up teaching me about something I’d never considered, or give me a new viewpoint. In the case of the life-threatening illness article, it gives me perspective on things that are much harder than getting my daughter to use the bathroom by herself. Sometimes life throws you something completely unexpected, and you have to be ready to ride the experience and hope you come out better in the end.

Posted in Parenting.


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