Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Before and After

My friend Margaret-Love, writing teacher extraordinaire, made up this exercise, a favorite of mine because it never fails to yield a wealth of material, even for the most blocked and/or insecure writer.

First, make a list of the times in your life or your character’s life when something happened that changed the course or your life and/or altered the way you saw the world. The kind of times that, when explaining ourselves to others, we might say “before” or “after.” They might be large moments, like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina. But more often, they’re small, deeply personal moments. Before Mother died, before my brother was born. After the move, the accident, the bankruptcy.

These times, ML says, are rich with tension, conflict, and scene. So choose one of them, write down every single thing you can remember about it and, suddenly, you’ll have so many scenes to work with you’ll hardly know where to start.

For example—considering your parents’ divorce, you might remember witnessing a terrible argument, eavesdropping on a conversation you wish you hadn’t heard, the evening they sat your down broke the news that they were parting, watching your father moving out, your first visit to his new home, a strained birthday celebration, the first Christmas without him…you get the picture. Each memory is like a little movie. Set one rolling in your mind’s eye and just write down everything you hear and see.

It works for fiction, too. Consider the significant events in your character’s life and brainstorm to discover scenes and moments surrounding them.

Serious illness often shows up on “Before and After” lists. I don’t know yet whether having cancer will end up on mine. At the moment, it feels like a dangerous patch of highway, a time to slow down, bring everything I have in me to navigating it safely and well.

But it certainly has made me think—about a lot of things, including the idea that our bodies have their stories too, moments of before and after happening beneath our skin that are unknown to us until they manifest themselves months or years later as, say, a spot on a mammogram.

Before, my cells were humming along, doing what cells were supposed to do; then, in a particular moment of time, one of them went rogue on me. If my body could talk, it might say, “Before that damn cell ran amuck, I was fine—exemplary! After, I went through hell and never was the same again.”

I’ve never been able to understand why some people find out they have cancer and delay treatment, sometimes for months saying things like, “I don’t want to spoil the holidays” or “We’ve got that trip planned to…wherever” or “There’s no way I’m going to be bald for my son’s wedding.” It’s not uncommon for surgeons and oncologists to tell patients that there’s a safe range of time to wait before beginning the treatment they need.

The thing is, the body’s own story is going on regardless of their plans. In my case, there was a particular moment when the first cell went rogue; another moment when one of the mutating cells separated itself from the others, made it through the wall of the duct; and another when one split and took the available path to the sentinel lymph node. The body keeps its stories to itself, so, while the pathology report after my lumpectomy indicates that it’s unlikely, even my doctors, among the best in the world, can’t know for sure whether there was a moment a tiny, tiny, invisible-to-the-microscope bit of the tiny, tiny bit of cancer nestling in that lymph node had already made it to the next lymph node on a set path toward my bloodstream.

Thus, my body will have a war story in its silent repertoire: chemotherapy and radiation, a search and destroy mission with orders to finish off that cell and any others that might have broken away.

Collateral damage. There always is.

But that will be a whole different story.


Christina said...

This is a great exercise, Shoup.

I've been thinking lots about 'before' moments, on the heals of parenthood. And reading your post made me think about all of the after things you can't control.

It's such a strong dichotomy: before and after.

Yanke said...

Barb... you have a unique way to stimulate thinking! To look at the "before and after," to think outside the window of fears, fears long imbedded by events forgotten, it opens a different perspective. Thank you!

You know where I am coming from..... The second time, no one outside my immediate family knew. I had to go on as if nothing had happened. I shut down to the extent, I could not cry. It is amazing what the body can do to compensate. My tears, though not visible, are there as pain within. Thank you again.....