Stay True to Your Art, Part III

In Part I and Part II, I described my life as a budding writer up to 1997. By that time, I had written two mediocre novels and three screenplays, two of which I felt were viable. They needed work but they were workable. I also had a small assortment of short stories I had written over the years of which I was proud, including a short story I wrote for one of my favorite classes in law school, “Women in Law and Literature.” That story is about a woman University of Colorado Law School graduate who gets caught up in World War Two’s Battle of the Bulge.

After graduating law school in May of ’97, I began studying for the July bar exam. I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer but after people graduate from law school they take the bar. That’s how it’s done. And I needed a job. At the same time, my Cystic Fibrosis was worsening. During my last semester of law school, I began talking with the University Hospital lung transplant team about getting listed for a transplant. They and my CF docs felt I was one lung episode away from needing one. They were right. Sometime in June, I decided I was not healthy enough to study for and take the bar exam. I was at about 39% lung capacity and on oxygen at night. At the time, I intended to take the bar at a later date. But fate was to intervene.

In July, I got a bad infection in my lungs and by August my lung capacity had dropped to 28%. My lung capacity did not improve with a hospital stay that included an antibiotic “tune-up.” August was my last month of freedom. By September, I was confined to my parents’ house, on oxygen 24/7, and actively trying to get on the lung transplant waiting list. I had some trouble getting my insurance to cover the transplant so I was not officially listed until late October. The next five months were the most difficult of my life. I have never been so literally fighting for my life on a daily basis. I would look at a new tube of toothpaste and seriously wonder which of us would last longer. But I did find time to write a long autobiographical essay that explained my life to that point as best as I could. I wanted to leave a piece of myself behind for my family — just in case.

Notwithstanding my realistic outlook toward my chances, I truly believed I would survive to receive a transplant and I truly believed I would set a new record for lung transplant longevity. There is no doubt in my mind that my confidence played a big role in my survival.

Back to writing. Lessons I have learned that I would share with other writers:

  1. Think of yourself as a writer even if you don’t make a living as a writer.
  2. Read numerous books about every subject and from every point of view imaginable. But do not read any books about writing; these three rules are all you need to know.
  3. The secret to becoming a writer is writing. As with any other art, practice makes you better. Just write dammit. A lot. My greatest weakness as a writer is that I don’t write enough.

I believe that great art rises to the top and gets recognized. I don’t believe there are masterpiece novels out there buried in drawers because nobody will publish them. Emily Dickinson is the exception, not the rule. That’s why I don’t worry about selling my screenplays or novels. I worry about writing them well.

The problem is, you can maximize your art — but that does not guarantee your art is any good. You may in the end be an average writer. That’s hard to accept. It’s scary. I often wonder if my failure to maintain a writing discipline — say three hours every day — is rooted in my fear of never amounting to more than an average writer. I feel like a star high school wide receiver. Will I be a star in college? Will I make it to the pros? Where will I peak? Have I peaked already?

Some writing is so bad I’m embarrassed by its glaring awfulness. Then I realize good writers look at my writing and see my glaring awfulness. The good thing is that when I look back on my old writing I see it too. Hell, I see it in my blog entries from a month ago. Writing is my art and I know I’m getting better but that doesn’t mean I write well. Finding one’s art does not guarantee greatness but it does guarantee a maximization of self. And that is the true prize in life, though a bittersweet one because discovering the truth about one’s self is inevitably as disappointing as it is enriching.

I awoke from my first transplant in 1998 with a new sense of mission. I did not go through all this to be a lawyer. Lawyering is an honorable and important profession, as exemplified by my father’s career — but it is not mine. For better or worse — poor, average or great — I am a writer. That was one half of my sense of mission. The other was that I must contribute to the fight against CF and for transplantation. I had always tried to live a life separate from CF. I was not involved in support groups outside of the occasional foray into the CF email list. I was not involved in charity work and I did not volunteer for experiments that advanced the cause of CF research. I would not say I was in denial. I took my pills, I was reasonably compliant with my therapies, at least the ones I thought were doing some good. But I felt like I didn’t need to give CF a bigger role in my life than it already had. I did not want to be defined by my CF so I relegated CF to as minimal a part of my life as possible. Now, after my first transplant, I knew this had to change.

So I put aside my dream of writing the Iran Hostage Crisis book to write a different book. The iconic book of the CF medical memoir genre is Frank Deford’s Alex: The Life of a Child. It’s a short, brilliant, heartbreaking book that has never been matched in the CF literary lexicon. Nobody has yet written a comparable book for lung transplants either. I set out to write a sequel of sorts to Deford’s book, a book that would show how far modern medicine has brought us CFers.

They say one should write what one knows. I have always resisted this notion. What I know bores me. I want to explore what I don’t know. That’s what I loved about my Iran book. It was very ambitious. I had to immerse myself in Islamic and Persian culture. And the 70s. And the Hostage Crisis itself. Thanks to the Denver Public Library, I did all that. But for my CF/transplant book, I had to immerse myself in myself. I couldn’t do it, at least not completely. I settled for a novel in which one character was loosely based on me and the other three main characters were entirely fictional. It took me a year or two to write the first draft and I was very proud of myself. It was my first viable novel. Like my two viable screenplays, it needed work but it was workable. Unfortunately, I was sick and tired of it. I yearned to write my Iran book and set off again on my research whirlwind. I wondered if maybe I liked researching more than I liked writing. This was also my first inkling that maybe I should be writing non-fiction books, not novels.

Looking back on my CF/transplant novel, I think it was a case of not staying true to my art. I wrote it because I thought I should, not because I was in love with the idea. I was in love with my Iran book but I was running out of steam on it. Had I researched it too long? Was its scope too big for me and my skills? Did I need another twenty years of life experience to write it properly? Was I falling out of love with it? Little did I know the impact my retransplant was to have on my outlook.

In the 2000s, I puttered along with my Iran book research and CF/transplant book editing. Truthfully, my passion for writing had fallen by the wayside. I was too busy enjoying being alive. For me, that first transplant was like a cure. For the first time in my life, I felt like a normal person and I relished it.

In 2005, I began my Retransplant Road blog, which was an outgrowth of a website I started a couple years earlier. While I was sick and waiting for my retransplant, I had very little energy. My blog gave me a creative outlet and it helped me refine my writing. I had already made the biggest leaps toward finding my art and staying true to it but there was still some tweaking to be done.

To be continued…

  1. A fellow Angel’s avatar

    Whatever you decide to do with your writing, you have a great gift. If you ever need someone to read through what you’ve written, a good friend of mine in New Mexico is an author and works with aspriring writers.

  2. A fellow Angel’s avatar

    Uh – oops – I need a proofreader. “Aspiring”, not “aspriring.”!

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