Writers are always told: write what you know. It’s as cliche was “the pen is mightier than the sword”. Unfortunately this leads to lots of fledgling writers composing short stories about twenty-somethings disillusioned with life, breakups, and college. At least, that’s the bulk of what I wrote in my undergraduate writing classes (and what most folks wrote)–for the most part, they were drivel.

The thing is, you can take the adage to mean more than one thing. It’s not just writing about what you know, as in what your life is about, but also what kind of reading you do, what worlds you know. Hence, these days I write fantasy, sci-fi, weird, Neo-Victorian stuff, because that’s what I enjoy reading more than anything.

But from a personal perspective, well, I’ve never been much of a writer from an autobiographical sense. If there’s one “thing” that I know the most in the world, one subject that’s defined my family and my upbringing more than any other, it’s certainly not SF/F (heck, I’m the only avid reader in the bunch!) but rather, it’s illness. In short: my father suffers from severe rhumatoid arthritis and something called hypersensitivity vasculitis, a condition he’s had for the last twenty-two years; my mother is a breast cancer survivor, and suffered from clinical depression half of her life; my sister is currently fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma; my son nearly died after he was born due to sepsis. My mom was diagnosed with cancer three weeks after I graduated high school. My father went in for open-heart surgery the week of my college graduation, and had a near-deathly staph infection the week of my wedding. Suffice it to say, he missed both events.

The irony is that I don’t write about illness. I realized this the other day when contemplating the concept of pain, and how it relates to characters and mood, etc. I was thinking how my dad wakes up every single day in pain. Some days worse, some better, but never free of it. Not like those of us who can take some ibuprofen and get on with our day. He is trapped in his pain. But he goes on, every day.

I don’t think I ever meant to write off illness. Maybe it’s too close. Even though the concept of healing through magic is prevalent in The Aldersgate, it is healing that comes with a price. It’s not “magic” healing any more than going to the doctor to get stitches is. In spite of the fact that writing a fantasy novel gives me the go-ahead to use magic as powerfully as I want, I’m extremely reluctant to allow a panacea. It’s likely that, deep down, I have been so disappointed by the prevalence of illness that I won’t even admit to the possibility of miracles in fantastic environments.

It’s leaked over into the way I portray magic in general, too. Because, for me, magic and fantasy aren’t effective if they don’t reflect truths in life. People die. People get sick. And sometimes, there’s nothing you can do for them except be there, love them, and cherish the time you have. Or don’t. People react very differently to illness and tribulation. Having seen my own son on a respirator, as well as my father, I have a perspective. Technology is the magic of our time, but neither are infallible.

I remember when I read Stephen King’s The Stand when I was fourteen. It was profound, startling. Captain Tripps wiped out most of the human race, and the world started anew. Then I couldn’t have said why it resounded so much with me. It was a little creepy that I read the 1,141 page paperback three times in the course of a few months. But I realized, much later, the likely reason for my obsession: the people were experiencing what I had experienced as a child, the suffering of a parent, of family. My father’s illness pervaded my childhood; he was often so ill he couldn’t get out of bed for weeks. Granted, he is still around, but I have always lived with the knowledge of the fragility of his existence. And The Stand not just helped me face that truth, but it also helped me see beyond death–that there was hope, still.

So, how about you? Are there things that you avoid when writing? Concepts or ideas that you consciously/subconsciously don’t write about?

What is your reaction?

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  1. I have just stumbled upon your blog (by an ironic coincidence, having just read this post!)as I was searching for those who DO write about their illness,and specifically cancer. Personally, I find that writing about it helps me make sense of my own experience. Cancer strikes a severe blow at our sense of self and our sense of past, present and future. The apparent randomness of a cancer diagnosis shakes our sense of identity to its very core and nothing will ever feel certain again. I believe that as we tell our story, we rebuild our wounded selves, learning to integrate our past, present and futures selves. The benefit of reading others stories is that by learning how others walked this path can enrich our own journey of discovery. Well, all that aside, it is a happy coincidence that I stumbled upon your blog and I will be looking forward to reading it in the future.

    1. @JBBC Absolutely, I agree with you. My sister, who is fighting Hodgkin Lympoma, is writing about it and she’s found that not only does it help her figure things out, but it’s a great way to reach out to other people. As a writer of sf/f and fiction, I don’t often have the chance to write about illness, and it’s not usually something I talk about. Of course that doesn’t mean it won’t change! I’ve always wanted to write my family’s story down.

  2. When I wrote the first draft of Midnight, the narrator/MC was me. Very cathartic. Anybody who’s ever read that draft knows what happened (minus the vampires lol) in my life from July 1994 through March 1996. I healed a ton of wounds.

    On the first rewrite, however, she demanded her own story, as it should be.

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