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Journaling Through Confinement

CURESummer 2020
Volume 19
Issue 3

An author who journaled while homebound after cancer treatment has created a book of writing prompts for those who are staying put during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The physical damage from cancer is horrible. I hated surgery, blood draws, chemo aftermath (did a semitruck run me over?!) and how my memory was shot. Although some folks not affected by cancer recommended that I “chill” (easy for them to say!), being homebound during treat- ment for an aggressive form of breast cancer was tough.

When I could barely hobble to my bathroom, I grimaced at the thought of another painful bout of diarrhea or constipation. Desiccated eyes, baldness (everywhere!), withered sexuality and the loss of actual body parts fed my internal chaos. Alone with my hamster wheel of a brain, I mourned not feeling normal, worried about money and bills, and wondered if I had caused my cancer by eating too many cheeseburgers, wearing sparkly makeup or playing in asbestos-laden buildings during childhood. As I became an expert on stay-at-home restlessness, it felt like I crawled my way to sitting still.

Because our society stigmatizes illness, grief and death, communicating about cancer takes work. The good news: Results of numerous studies show that writing about thoughts and feelings in the face of unexpected events such as cancer lowers stress and anxiety. As a professional food writer, I was used to writing about chefs and restaurants. Cancer made me feel desperate, so I started jotting things in a notepad 24/7 to process and organize my thoughts. With that, I began to feel better.

Eventually, I invited my friend, cartoonist Don Asmussen, creator of the San Francisco Chronicle comic strip “Bad Reporter,” to collaborate. Don has had two experiences with cancer and is hilarious and witty. Our book is “The Wig Diaries,” an irreverent compilation of essays that do not shy away from the horrifying, embarrassing and saucy, such as wig shopping on drugs, going naked with only one nipple at the hot springs and finding myself attracted to a married member of my medical team.

As a writing teacher, I have seen students get their own spark from using writing prompts. When the coronavirus shut down many parts of our country, I realized people were stuck at home with their thoughts and fears in the same way I had been as a patient with cancer. I decided to launch a book called “Write It Down: Coronavirus Writing Prompts.”

“Write It Down” has 186 short exercises that provide inspiration and structure for writers of all skill levels. It’s like a fun food buffet — pick and choose what excites you. Because a lot of people love food, there’s a section for that, whether you want to go down pizza memory lane or fantasize about a cook making you whatever you want to enjoy with whomever you want. Dig into these other sample prompts:

  1. What’s your secret weapon? Are you organized? Strong? Fierce? Forward-thinking? Smart? Calm? Hardworking? Funny? Describe ways in which you’ve recently used this secret weapon.
  2. Write about an underwater scene with a cast of marine life characters — perhaps a drama, romance or science fiction piece.
  3. When was the last time you had a great, rolling belly laugh? What happened?

Coronavirus remains incredibly challenging for us all, but writing things down offers a great way to move forward. The “Write It Down” prompt categories include:

  • Reality Check
  • Imagine
  • All the Feels
  • Time Machine
  • Weird
  • You Look Good!

I was happy to hear from a cancer survivor who shared how “Write It Down” has benefited her: “I appreciate the process. I’ve been struggling with journaling ever since I had kids and got busy, but using writing prompts works really well for me. I think this journal is the beginning of a new trend for me.”

It’s good to enjoy things that we love. I am excited to help others in this way, because I know there can be real healing in writing.

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