The life of a writer, for all the adventurous yarns they weave, is essentially a quiet one.
If the writer wants time to write their great story of heroism and mayhem, then the very excitements that are being written about must give way to solitary contemplation. This conundrum can leave the writer without inspiration from everyday life regularly coming their way, wishing for an injection of something new into their life.
When the writer is out in the world, the creative creature in their brain must strain to take in everything that might become characters, scenes and ideas. In the writer’s darkest moments, which are not few and far between, perhaps they wish to witness a terrible traffic collision or overhear a violent and nuanced argument, just to feed the creative creature something juicy.
I often feel this way. Good stories are born out of many absurd or unique realities sewn convincingly together. The ideal situation, if I really want to make my writing convincing and well-researched, is to be thrown into some crazy scenario. As long as it isn’t dangerous and it is only temporary, my writing will surely benefit.
What a mix of dismay and delight I felt, then, on being told I will need heart surgery earlier this month.
The words “heart surgery” were ones that I’d never heard outside of a predictable movie or a low-budget soap opera. I had happily convinced myself that I could go through my little life never having such a unbelievable thing happen to me.
In the doctor’s office, facing the stern man, I was given the news by way of a biro drawing which rather than resemble a faulty heart, looked like a quite accurate representation of a male organ. (I think he realized this at the same time I did, judging by the way he tried to add on desperate valves and heart-accessories, which only helped in making the scrotal part suitably hairy).
To give him his due, it did help to explain how there was a hole where there shouldn’t be, and also made the news infinitely easier to write about in situations such as this post. “I understand if you want to go home for this, I’m not telling you this to try and sell our doctors,” he kindly said.
“I think I’ll go home,” I said, thinking of how to best show my bravery. “Because… the heart’s kind of a… biggie.”
“Uh, yeah,” he replied.
Not wanting to make anything more of this inconvenience that I have to, I should preface this by saying that if I lose my current judgement and refer to my situation as a tragedy, or something similar, I’m referring to the fact that I have to abandon my visa paperwork and potentially say goodbye to life in New York for good.
This is no tragedy, this is a chance to milk some pity and take down some valuable work.
Not knowing anything but writing, my second thought (the first being: “Why me? What a cruel world! Where is my mother?”) was that this would make a fun thing to write about.
I very recently wrote a piece about why I was glad to be staying in New York. The fact that that post has been spectacularly voided is upsetting. Yet the irony and humor is not lost on me.
I do not like the fact that I now have to leave and have surgeons (robots?) root around in my heart, but I do like the fact that I get to write an embarrassing follow-up to that piece. I also like the fact that by pulling out the quirks of this situation and writing them down I can ease my paranoia and make myself (and perhaps others) see that something like this can be enjoyed, too.
Though I fully expect to not only survive (though if I have died and you are reading this afterwards, take a moment to appreciate the dramatic irony) but to feel better afterwards, it’s hard to not be fatalistic. I’ve always thought that writing is inherently fatalistic. I write because I will die. It’s the closest thing to a cure for life that I can think of.
In a strange way, thinking the worst about something like this helps to mine this situation for all its literary worth because I know it’s interesting. Things this interesting rarely occur to me. For this attitude I am in debt to my literary heroes, and perhaps one above all.
Christopher Hitchens’ book Mortality is easily one of the most horrifying and affecting books I have ever read. It details his experience with esophageal cancer, which eventually caused his death, in real time. The book ends unfinished due to his commitment to write up until the very end. (Hitchens notably underwent waterboarding for a Vanity Fair article as well.)
To me this is the mark of the true writer. And by true writer, I mean a writer who is committed to turning life events, whether they are joyful or horrible, into shared experience and education through literature. I’m not comparing myself to him but mentioning him because I hope that if I ever go through any greater trauma (but hopefully not one as large as his) that I will be able to deal with it in the same brave, towering and commanding way. Truly, writing can not only drive people to extraordinary things, but make extraordinarily frightening things seem manageable, tangible and, best of all, allow them to be controlled and understood.
In more than one way, I am glad that this has happened to me. I’ve heard that girls like a man with cool scars, so that’s a plus. I’ll have a fairly unbeatable trump card if I want to outdo someone’s annoying bragging at a party (“Oh really, you’ve spent six months teaching Cambodian orphans to read? Well, buddy, I’ve had heart surgery!”).
Best of all, I’ve got an opportunity to feed the creative creature in my brain. The strange mix of selfishness and nihilism (with a great dose of humanism and appreciation–I’m not about to start orating on the beauty of a child’s laughter or a butterfly’s wing, but you get the point) that I’m experiencing is exactly what I’ve felt my whole life. Now it has a focus. Even if my heart is slowly tiring and my lungs grabbing for more oxygen than can be given to them, the creative creature in my brain is positively fighting fit.
Though I am not staying in New York, and perhaps I won’t be able to come back thanks to the Department of Homeland Security not thinking that a condition involving faulty organs was necessary in the small-print, I will take all that this great city has given me and use it to keep on writing about the best and the worst of life. I am spoiled, too, by the bounty of heart-based puns on offer that would be perfect for ending a piece of writing like this. The best I can come up with is the rather apt: home is where the heart is. Well, here’s hoping.