It’s been two weeks – or maybe three – since I introduced the topic of my work-in-process, Fever of Unknown Origin. In all that time, I haven't touched the manuscript. No, not even once. I could provide a list of all the reasons why but the reasons aren’t the point. I can always find a reason to not write when I am feeling shaky about what needs writing.
The section that is up for revision at this point is a big chunk, about 200 pages that deal with the weeks I spent in the hospital in 1990. Sound like a compelling read? No? No. That's the problem. While writing the first drafts, I felt very compelled. My fingers flew on the keyboard, setting down the stuff that had been bouncing around in my head since I’d recovered. It was therapy but therapy writing does not a good story make.
I've since revised these pages several times, added scenes, drama, dialogue. How, you ask, do I remember which nurse it was who came to my aid in a fraction of a second when I pulled the emergency “Help” cord in the bathroom, what the gastroenterologist was wearing when I first met him, or which phlebotomist told me I wasn’t the first patient to call him Dracula? Well (a James Frey caveat, here) I did the best I could. I filled in gaps with what seemed likely but I really did remember a lot. (The nurse was Cheryl; the GI doctor wore a Banlon golf shirt, tan khaki pants, tasseled loafers. He smelled like soap. I don’t remember the phlebotomist’s name but he was a middle-aged guy with a good smile.) The circumstances (unidentified illness, blood work growing worse daily, high fevers, itchy rash, uncertain future) were dire and one does remember details better when under certain kinds of duress. The circumstances were also dull. Monotonous. Blood draws, nurses with thermometers and blood pressure cuffs, hospital beeps and buzzes. Bad TV (the early 90's - no cable, no videos - 3 major networks playing Cheers, Growing Pains, reruns of Mork and Mindy. The only one I could tolerate was Mork).
So why tell the story of the monotonous illness, the hospital weeks, especially? The themes of the book have to do with the impermanence of life, the constancy of change, the delusion most of us carry, that we can keep ourselves from harm. And especially, what we do when we’ve failed, when the worst has happened, and we can’t fix it.
Those weeks in the hospital were an intensive course in losing control. Not only had all my healthy habits (daily running, eating whole grains and no trans fat, vitamins etc) failed to protect me, once I was in the hospital the formerly copious blanket of my denial failed to cover me.
The truth was out in the open, verdict spoken by the medical powers that be: you are seriously ill and we don’t know why.
As I lay for hours, for days, for weeks, in hospital beds and my own bed at home, I was both frightened and, I must admit it, fascinated, in a horrified kind of way, with what was happening to me. Fascinated the way you are when you drive by a car crash – you don’t want to look but you have to, you slow down and gawk, looking for the blood, for the bodies on the shoulder of the road. That's the kind of fascination I felt. Couldn't take my eyes off myself. My situation.
I took mental notes. Not pen and paper ones; I was too sick to write much down. Instead, I noticed. I remembered. I sensed there was a story in what I was going through, something important to be told.
(I filled part of only five or six pages in the notebook I kept by my bed and the only part that’s interesting is the part about the skinny little red man I dreamed about who crawled out of a hole in the molten earth and grabbed my ankle, pulling me down into his underground hole.)
Now the task ahead is to boil down the too-many pages I wrote a few years after my recovery into a story that other people will want to read, will care about, will identify with.
I spent this morning in my new writing studio on the phone with Geek Squad trying to get my computer to access the internet. Failed.
I finished this post.