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  • Writer's pictureMarjorie Robertson

From Wendy Bilen's My Written Life, "Writing with Illness" by Marjorie Robertson

Writing with illness

January 13, 2017

When you are ill or in pain for weeks or months, you may experience a sense of powerlessness over your body that can leave you feeling like a shell of a person, as though your spirit has abandoned your life and refused to live in it any longer.

This is the first salt in the morning and the last at night.

You may wish to be someone else and to experience anything other than what you're experiencing in your body and your life, which don't feel like yours anymore. Your body is equal parts culprit and victim. Some days you may wish to comfort it like a sick friend, other days to kick it out the door like an intruder.

But just as the mystic medieval Christian poet Mechthild of Magdeburg said: A bird does not fall from the sky. A fish does not drown in water.

We are all meant for something, our entire being. Even during difficult times, life will claim you—your essence—like drawing blood from a screaming child. Every day is finding a spot you can live with...or letting it find you. For writers and other artists, it means carrying on as if art mattered, as if we mattered.

Those times when I stopped writing due to pain or discouragement, I didn’t know who I was—to remove that thread woven into my identity for so long was to unravel me entirely. This is a powerful trap. We are more than our writing lives. We are here to grow in more than one way. Sometimes other parts of life require us completely. Through it all, we can learn a valuable lesson—to trust our bodies and to trust life. Once I accepted that this is the body that comes with this soul instead of fighting it, I climbed out of my hole and began, again.

Awareness came. Each new thing with its scary, jagged edges can bring something good. For me, illness helped me slow down and pay attention. It helped me relax if I don’t write the way I want to write or as much as I want to write. Today, when I have pain, I take a break. If I can manage two hours, I do two hours. If it’s less, I do less. Sometimes the best solutions are also the simplest. Care for yourself enough to go to work to be able to support yourself and maybe someone else. Medical care, eat, sleep, walk, work. Repeat. Start writing, again, when the level of discomfort is tolerable.

You know what? I don’t have to eat the finest meals, sleep in perfect, blissful comfort every night, have only great sex and interact with the closest, kindred spirits. I don’t have to have a perfect body. I don’t have to have great, ordered brilliance in my writing life, either. In fact, the creative spirit thrives on raw chaos! Ideas have come from subjects I’d previously kept at arm’s length—politics and social justice, fear and a sense of instability.

As adults, we bear scars. We have been nibbled at. We are frayed around the edges. Yet it amazes me how we carry on despite our trials and inadequacies. Herein lies the fundamental challenge—how to wake with right mind despite pain or illness or fear and experience the awesomeness of a moment now and then for that is where it is found, in glimpses and, if you’re lucky, in sustained minutes. Some days it is as though everything in the world is working against it. Will anyone ever want to publish my manuscript? I don’t know. Sending out is the hardest part of the process for me, but it is only part of the process of the larger balancing act of expression, work, people, loved ones, finances, and health.

Someone once said to me that all we need to do is let our bodies and souls heal themselves. With medical help and a full dose of compassion from others and ourselves, we do heal, but as slowly as a tree grows and with a hidden wisdom we can only hope to understand.

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