The two-story farmhouse where I grew up had a back door that faced west. Visitors and family members entering the house through that door found themselves in the mud room, where boots could be removed to leave puddles on the linoleum and coats could be hung in what was aptly named The Coat Closet. (Note: Minnesota Norwegians aren’t known for complicated labels.)
Before my parents remodeled, the front entrance consisted of four cement steps that opened into the room known as the Play Room. (See previous comment about Norwegians.) Within that room’s walls my sisters and I orchestrated fashion shows for our Barbies and my brother and I fought wars with little green army men. The piano and various other musical instruments took up residence in that corner of the house, giving an entirely different meaning to the word play as we dutifully plunked out thirty minutes until a ringing alarm released us.
One house. Two doors. I have no memory of ever entering the house through the front door. The front door was used only by people who didn’t know us: delivery services and door-to-door salesmen.
For those who knew us–neighbors, friends, relatives and family–they all used the back door. Perhaps because the kitchen–the heart of the home–was the next room after you hung up your coat. The back door was the fastest way to getting a cup of coffee and a little lunch, which in a farming community had nothing to do with “little.”
Recently, I taught a writing workshop to participants who wanted to record their cancer stories. As a seven-year breast cancer survivor, I understand the value of capturing a difficult story on paper and sharing it with others. I also knew that unburying the deep parts of a cancer journey can be difficult. Memories are often stuffed as patients have had to deal with the chaos of living in the overwhelming now. It is sometimes difficult to bring those stories out into the light of day.
The class began with the typical questions:
- What day were you told that you had cancer?
- What was your diagnosis?
- What treatment plan did your doctor recommend?
People shared the facts, the analytical details. Breast cancer. Skin cancer. A parent with three cancers. Chemo. Radiation. The participants shared important details, but the questions were lacking. The inquiries didn’t invite the telling of a story, the intimate details of a life.
Rather, the class invited others into the front door. A place for strangers.
For the second round of writing, I read a story from my journal about a day I was swimming laps at the gym after my diagnosis, a day I decided that I was going to beat the woman swimming next to me to the wall. She didn’t even know it was a competition, but on that day I decided that cancer would not win. I talked to the class about the smell of the chlorine. The feel of the water on my skin. The exaltation of touching my fingers to the wall.
Then I said, “We all have those moments when we decide that cancer will not win. I want to know about yours. Maybe it was wearing a certain outfit to treatment. Maybe it was going religiously to chemo. Maybe it was doing something that was physically challenging. Tell me about a time when you determined that cancer would not win.”
People picked up pencils or typed on their laptops. One man told about wearing purple–the color for cancer survivors–to treatment. A woman told a story about putting on lipstick and a wig to feel beautiful. Another told about training to run a marathon.
One by one, people shared hard things, but with smiles on their faces. In the midst of a difficult diagnosis, at that moment in their story, they were victorious.
I realized something important. By asking a question tied to an emotion, I invited people into the heart of their story, a task, we, as writers, attempt to do every day. We don’t spout facts and figures about relationships, conflicts, and belief systems.
No, we pick up our pencils and we invite people to enter through the back door, where they can hang up their coats and leave their boots to leave puddles on the linoleum.
Lynne Hartke’s first book: Under a Desert Sky: Redefining Hope, Beauty and Faith in the Hardest Places is coming out with Revell/Baker in May 2017. She blogs at http://www.lynnehartke.com.