Last week, my wife Cathy had knee replacement surgery and is now recovering at home. I don’t think she’ll mind if I share some things from this experience that may prove helpful to all of us as we continue our writers’ journeys.
One of the things I’ve heard Cathy say to those who ask how she’s doing after surgery is this. “On Monday, I had pain in my knee, and that pain wasn’t ever going to get any better. Today, I have pain, but that pain is eventually going to go away.” The lesson for those of us who write? Let go of the pain that comes from our failed attempts, our rejections, our disappointments. Set our sights, instead, on the road ahead—the road to better attempts, acceptances, the pleasure of putting words on the page.
Now that she’s home, I’m seeing to Cathy’s needs. She’s a pretty independent sort, though, so she likes to do things for herself if she can. As writers we sometimes try to do too much for our characters, and we confine them and keep them from evolving. We flatten them rather than letting them display their multiple dimensions.
For some reason, when people have this kind of knee surgery, the quadriceps (a group of four muscles, including those on the front of the thigh) forget how to work. Cathy can walk with the aid of a walker, but, if sitting or lying down, she can’t use her quad muscles to lift her foot and leg. That’s what the physical therapy is for. I have to help her with that part of her exercises. I tell her to try to lift while I assist her. We writers never improve our craft without the help of others, whether that assistance comes from other writers who read our work and offer helpful comments, or whether we read the work of writers who have something to teach us. We should always be reading with an eye toward how a piece of writing was made because of specific artistic choices and the effects they created. Then we need to practice those choices in work of our own so we can internalize them and have them at the ready as we continue to develop our craft.
This morning, I noticed more effort on the part of Cathy’s quads than I did yesterday. So it is with the writer, little by little, via repeated effort, we improve.
Here in the early stages of Cathy’s recovery, I think of my mother who had to see to my father’s needs after he lost his hands in a farming accident. She did all that while also keeping house, raising me, and teaching school. Rarely did she have a minute to herself. Despite that, I never heard her utter a word of complaint. I’m trying to take my cue from her now: patience, selflessness, sacrifice, love. It’s a good combination, not only for a caregiver, but also for a writer. I know it’s hard, but if we can take our egos out of the writing—if we can concentrate instead on what our characters have to show us—we’ll have more patience with the process. We’ll be more observant, and we’ll be better able to love the worlds we’re creating on the page as well as the characters who occupy those worlds, no matter how flawed they may be.
Sometimes we have to let the self go in order to make more room for others. When we do that, we fill ourselves with empathy and humanity, and we transfer that gift to those around us, whether they be created characters on a page, or those we love in the here and now.