When I first decided to switch careers from doctoring to writing, it was neither a seamless transition, an easy decision, and in many ways, not a decision at all. I was a pediatric anesthesiologist until one day, I woke up with a headache that didn’t go away. I had unremitting chronic migraines. Despite several top of the line therapies, they plague me still. The reason I haven’t written more about my headaches has to do with Daniel Wallace, and spoons.
But the reason I write has to do with the same things.
A year after the headaches began, I was out on disability and desperately looking for a new purpose in life. Coming from the challenging world of academic anesthesia, stay-at-home mom was wonderful but less than satisfying (my children are school age, and busy as they were, I was not used to free time). I decided, rather literally overnight, to start a novel.
You can imagine how that went, since the last creative writing I’d done was in high school. Plus I’d had a constant headache for twelve months. But I persevered. A friend offered to put me in touch with local author Daniel Wallace, UNC professor of writing and author of Big Fish and recently released The Kings and Queens of Roam. I took her up on it, despite flutters of anxiety at having to say, out loud, “I’m trying to be a writer” to a real writer.
He agreed to meet me over lunch. He was incredibly kind, patient, and professorial. I only wish my employee tuition benefits extended to UNC and not The Other Triangle University.
This was my first introduction to what life as a real writer could be. He warned me even successful writers have other jobs. He asked me if I really wanted to give up being a doctor for a career where I might never make money again. I had to say I was afraid so. He patiently answered all my questions about agents, publishing short stories, finding writers’ groups (“I believe you look on-line”), etc., then offered two very good, very memorable pieces of advice:
- When asked if he might look at something I’d written, he said, after a lengthy pause, “If you’ve only been writing for two months, you’re probably not any good.” This was honest, and true, and had the right effect: It motivated me to take a serious look at what I’d written so far and try to make it better.
- After I explained about my headaches and why I’d started writing, he said something to the effect of, “Don’t write about headaches. Write the story through mundane things.” At which point, he picked up his spoon and said:
“Write about the spoon.”
I truly believe he was unaware of blogger Christine Miserandino’s Spoon Theory of Chronic Illness. I only recently became aware of it myself. I’ve heard several friends refer to it casually when they’re having a bad day, e.g. “I’m running low on spoons.” Spoons are a ready framework for that indefinable quality of energy we have, sometimes more of sometimes less, somewhat mood and weather dependent, a stash we can occasionally borrow against tomorrow’s, or maybe not, and sometimes, for no reason, they just get swept away.
Spoons changed my life. Finally, someone had put into words what I’d been living with since I stopped being healthy. I had yet to admit that I’d become sick.
“When other people can simply do things, I have to attack it and make a plan like I am strategizing a war.” – Christine Miserandino
I live spoon to spoon. I’m lucky, because my chronic disease gives me a fairly predictable daily supply and won’t ever deplete my cutlery drawer to zero. I can borrow against tomorrow’s, and simply pay the price with a nap or a headache or both.
So I ignore the headache, and write about the spoon. I’ve learned to appreciate the story in every piece of silverware, from the miniscule pickle fork to the mighty pie wedge. I’ve learned to create characters with real problems, quirks and habits and emotions and flaws, and not one of them has a headache, ever. Sometimes they have spoons, but life isn’t fair, so when it furthers the plot, I sneak in and empty their drawers.
But when I do, I keep their spoons for myself.