So I acknowledge death, accept the possibility that I could end at any time with little to show for as a writer. But I’m not sure my confrontation with death, or grief, can be awarded the status of Hemingway-esque heroism. I hurt. I went to the hospital. I had surgery.
Nothing could have delighted me more when I came out of surgery than through the scrim of morphine and anesthesia seeing the blur of pink shirt that was my wife. A craving had settled. She knew I was well — and alive. We had only known each other four full months before we were married the last week of December and surgery wasn’t going to leave our relationship behind. I had never expected to meet the woman I would marry in Waco, Texas. When I moved to Waco it was with a sense that I was leaving much of my old life behind. I wanted something new — I even threw out my high school annuals; they were part of something old, worn, stripped of life; they meant nothing to me, as high school meant nothing to me. As much as I was willing to purge of my old single life in Temple, Texas, I wasn’t prepared for a similar cathartic experience by leaving behind the new life, the new beginning I had with with my wife and stepdaughters.
“Life itself involves a continual leaving behind — of stages, of parts of self,” McMurtry writes.
We step across Heraclitus’ river, look back and see fresh water, our footsteps washed away, only the present before us.
Surgery had altered my life, I just hadn’t realized it. A whole new aspect, and sense of self. It is a common post-op alteration, the sense of detachment, McMurtry writes. In November 2007, I stopped reading a blog that had been a favorite and regular read, the novelist Patry Francis’ Simply Wait. She hadn’t offended me; I just couldn’t read what she was telling me — the story of the triumph of having her first novel published suddenly dimished by revelations that she had cancer. I wasn’t ready to read about cancer because the disease — my father succumbing to leukemia — still haunted me, and here cancer was serving out its democratic injustice at a moment of success. But, a few days ago surfing my blogroll, I decided to check her site again. There were new posts. She had been in the hospital, several times, a long series of stays, and she was writing about her most recent stay after a surgery. Her surgery had altered her sense of self, too. “I’m not the same person I was when I entered the hospital for the first time on November 28th,” she writes, “and I don’t think I will be her again. Her preoccupations are not mine. Her sense of time and priorities are different, too.”
A writer’s life had altered.
My life has been altered by surgery. But no more than it has been altered by marriage. I shed part of my life Dec. 29 — I am now a husband, a stepfather. This alteration, though, has not diminished me. With my wife and her children I feel new. I never stop craving her. I had not stopped craving her when I was in the hospital. And, I suspect I had not stopped desiring to write then either, or I had come to desire to write again while there. Helixing up through the solar plexus of every writer is desire, or desire should be almost genetic, part of our DNA, according to novelist and writing teacher Dan Barden in the recent issue of Poets & Writers. “[De]sire is what makes a poet like Yeats,” he writes. “What’s important is the struggle — the struggle that desire creates in both writers and writing . . . . Desire is important to creative writing because it’s the only thing that causes conflict. Conflict is important to writers because it’s the only evidence of desire.”
In the hospital, once my mind was less fuzzy, I read. Only for about a week post-op, the week when it seem as if I were completely dimished, had the desire to read vanished. Reading, McMurtry realized, was a “form of looking outward, beyond the self, and that, for a long time, I couldn’t do — the protest from inside was too powerful.” My experience was different. I had no trouble looking outward, connecting with someone else’s words. Why is writing so intimate with desire? It’s as much part of personality as it is some teachable skill, and most of personality, of the self, seems motivated by desires, simple and complex. It’s why style is so individual. We can only imitate another writer’s style so long in the process of learning to write before we have to develop our own. The other writer’s desires and struggles and conflicts are not ours.
And yet the difficulty to expose ourselves, must lead to our difficulties when writing. Surgery had altered me, or I was afraid it had altered me. I was afraid that not only had my body been changed, but that somehow the surgery had unvealed all my fears, particularly that I was just fooling myself. I wasn’t a writer. I was just a failure — that’s why it was so easy for me to leave a full time writing job — for weeks, days, months, a year or more before the surgery, I didn’t want to expose myself in such an intimate way. Even when I wrote in third person, as I did as a journalist, as I most often did with fiction — my unpublished novel is in third person — I revealed my self to me first, and then to readers, real and imagined, and that, in itself can be terrifying.
My body is knitted together now, as evidenced by the still long red scar on the right lower quarter of my abdomen. My sense of self, as I write each day, seems mended, too. I’m no longer detached from the desire to write, any more than I was ever detached from my wife because of my surgery. I have new desires, new conflicts, and they share a space with the old desires, old conflicts, everything that made me a writer in the first place. I have come back to myself, and perhaps I have a surgery to thank for that.