When I worked in newspapers and television, I had short deadlines. I wrote in my head as I drove back to the office and then typed the news story at warp speed. My experience taught me how to write anywhere. In a fast food restaurant. In the library. In my car waiting for band practice to end and at the horseback riding ring (back in the day when the kids were young). Nowadays, I prefer writing in a coffee shop. I find it harder to write at home—too many temptations (should I take a nap?), too many interruptions (Thing One and Thing Two fighting), and too many distractions (are there really that many giant dust bunnies made of dog's hair??).
I'm telling you this because I think it's important to be able to write anywhere. If you wait for the muse to strike in exactly the right place and exactly the right time, you'll grow old and gray and never write a word. Writing is like practicing the piano. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Yeah. You know.
So, imagine my surprise when recently I opened my computer and nothing happened. I opened my favorite notebook and took the cap off my favorite pen and nothing happened. I looked out the window across the Emory Hospital campus, the Atlanta skyline turning pink in the sunrise. I tried to write again. Still, nothing happened. My brain was frozen. All I could think of was this: I am with you. I am with you. I am with you. It was a prayer to my daughter who was down the hall somewhere, arms splayed, IVs dripping, anesthetized beyond consciousness, an incision running from stem to stern, a surgeon or two or three dipping their hands into her inviolable spaces, and sewing a dead person’s organs into her body. If all went well, my daughter’s new pancreas would take its second chance at life by pumping out insulin, lowering her blood sugar to normal levels. And the new kidney would allow her to live without dialysis. I envisioned holding her hand as the medical staff did their best and hoped the universe would deliver my message to her. Behind the double doors marked "Staff Only" my daughter, age 36 and chronically ill for 30 years, was undergoing surgery that could change her life in amazing miraculous ways. Or end it.
I'm not trying to be melodramatic but I'm a writer with a fertile imagination. When the surgeon says, "This surgery is not without risks," my imagination leaps into very dark places.
The transplant procedure would take most of the day. It seemed like a good idea to write since I would be spending a stretch of at least six hours in enforced solitude. I imagined making great headway on my Work In Progress. Hanging out with my imaginary characters would take my mind off the dark places. I should have known better. My spirit had the will, but my brain would not cooperate. While the urge to write was still present, unfortunately the urge and the will were at odds. I couldn’t force my mind to engage with my characters.
In the afternoon a surgeon informed me the operation was over. She did well, he said. The pancreas and kidney were working. He was thrilled when the organs kicked in, as if on cue. “They pinked up and started working right away,” he said proudly, as if he were showing me pictures of his adorable children. Still, a precipitous drop in blood pressure in the OR had spooked him. He wanted my daughter to go to ICU instead of coming back to her room. He looked at me, this young and earnest doctor, as if apologetic for the change in plans. You’re the expert, I said.
The young men and women on the transplant floor are brilliant miracle workers as far as I’m concerned. They perform life-altering surgery and then go home and sleep and eat like mere mortals. They make it seem so ordinary, but to a layman like me, transplanting organs belongs in science fiction.
In an uncomfortable chair outside the ICU, I tried writing again. It was impossible. Instead I turned to my old stand-by: Masterpiece Mystery, specifically Joan Hickson playing Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. I don’t know what it is about Hickson’s portrayal of the amateur sleuth, but I feel I am in good hands when I watch her. She’s a keen observer, confident, wily, and perceptive, especially in revealing human foibles. While I love other Agatha Christie characters, in times of crisis only Miss Marple will do.
I wasn’t worried about getting back to the writing. It would come later when my daughter was recovering at home and I was in the familiar environment of my coffee shop. I wasn’t having writer’s block but a writer’s bump. A bump in the road caused by an unavoidable crisis. I believe in the writer’s triumvirate: will, faith, and perseverance. The will to write, faith in yourself, perseverance through the bad times. Success to the last writer standing.
Despite the long trip to Atlanta, interrupted sleep, and anxiety, and the lost writing time, I am grateful. Grateful to the late Joan Hickson for her superb work as Miss Marple which provided me with the perfect tranquilizer. Grateful to superb surgeons at Emory Hospital who, while not entirely nonchalant, were as calm as mechanics changing the oil in my car. Grateful to my daughter for showing me how to be brave. Grateful to the person who donated a pancreas and kidney, but who had to die in order to make the delivery. Finally, I am grateful to the universe and my forebears for giving me the DNA to mess around with words.
I don’t perform life-saving surgery, but I do know where to place an Oxford comma.
The big mucky-mucks of the writing world say you must write every day. It’s good advice, but not necessarily workable. My advice is: when your brain is frozen, put down your favorite pen and notebook. Close the computer. Watch Agatha Christie mysteries, binge on fishing shows, listen to music or, if your frozen brain will allow you to read, pick up a book of poetry. And after you’ve driven over the bump in the road, love your children. Kiss your spouses and partners. Say a prayer of gratitude to the universe that you have lived another day. The writing will come again.