In all these cases the thought occurred to me, concurrent with my panic and dread, that I was receiving a gift, if only I could survive it.
And each time I woke up, I wrote better. Some of it was too raw to be pleasing, but I found I could write more forcefully. This isn't just boasting — I can't claim that anybody else felt the same way about my writing, if they were paying attention at all. My new authority was something I sensed in the act of writing.
It’s trauma, of course, that wakes us. Disasters, public and private — earthquakes, elections, pandemics, and the joyful catastrophes of falling in love, realizing a dream, having a child — force change, or create the desire to change.
In the midst of trauma, everything means something. Signs and symbols appear. You’ve noticed them before, you’re a writer, but now you see them everywhere. You take comfort in the symbolic meaning of passing pest-control and plumbing trucks. The numbers 13 and 14. Spiders as a metaphor for chemo (let them crawl through the house of your body and do their dark work). Yes, as Austrian psychotherapist and philosopher Viktor Frankl noted while enduring Auschwitz: even birds.
So you pray. For angels. You meet some. That male nurse who caught you as you fell the first morning when you tried to walk after your first surgery. The nurse who embraced you as you sobbed and told you that her daughter was born in 1973, just like you, and she has a rare cancer and “she’s still here.”
These are dramatic moments that meant something, must mean something.
Eventually trauma ends, one way or another. You will know you’re feeling better when you feel you want to write.
You are rebounding, on your own two feet, when you find yourself envying other writers again, just a bit. You may feel let down. You worry again that your writing is no good. You crave accolades and applause, again. You desire.
And you desire because you are healing. You are astonished! Yet now you want to know — need to know — what has it all been for?
The taboo of vulnerability
I have changed. Though like all change, I know it’s temporary.
My bladder’s smaller because of colon cancer treatment. My liver’s grown back. Parts of us regenerate, others don’t.
My hands and feet are numb from neuropathy from the chemo. But they’ve been waking up. I’ve been told this can take a year or more. Some feeling never comes back.
I’ve learned to be less careful. I was a dedicated hand-washer for years and look where that got me.
As a writer I was perfectionistic — an aesthetic hand-washer — but I am less so, much less so now. Perfection is seductive, but messes have more life.
Overall I’m less afraid.
Of premieres, for example. Still, I don’t want to see that evening’s performance or, worse yet, chat with you at the after-party. It’s no insult to you or to my colleagues, but my work, as they say, is done here.
I’m less scared to give readings or lectures; I don’t need a drink, before or after.
I’m less nervous to meet you in life. The awkward thing said and unsaid, yours and mine — I just let it fly, let it lie. Doesn’t bother me much.
I’m less scared of rejection. I mean, who cares? I want to eat, sure; I need a job, some respect. But I almost died; I could be about to die again. What does it matter if somebody I don’t know doesn’t care, for whatever reason, for what I’ve written?
I lied: rejection still hurts. But less so, much less so now . . .
I’m grateful more often. Bewildered constantly. It’s too early to feel guilty.
I cry more. I look forward to crying, though I don’t let my young daughter see.
She is 3 years old and right now squealing with delight “Sandpipers! Sandpipers!” along the beach in Caherdaniel, on a misty late-June morning, with her mother following a few steps behind, when two years ago I thought her mother would die. When I know she will, one day, as I will. But now we may have longer together than we thought. With my lower back seized from driving the perilously twisting lanes of rural Ireland, I lie on a bed of rock above the cove, just as I lay in countless gurneys over the past 18 months, wheeled into operating rooms and the spinning, droning orifices of CT and MRI scans; I now allow others to care for me, when I have to.
I have learned that I feel annoyed to be called brave. As an artist and as a survivor.
My wife feels much the same, having been public lately about her breast cancer and treatment, and basing a season of her own TV show on the ordeal. We’re modest or in denial. Or we are annoyed because we’ve had no choice — the choice was whether to give in and give up. But we were given hope by our doctors, and before that we’d been given our daughter.
Maybe we just don’t want you to feel sorry for us — your commiserating, well-meaning frown-smiles. We don’t want the presumed distance between us reinforced.
When people say we have been brave, what they mean is that we have been brave to talk and write about it. Cancer. Or in my previous plays writing about the mental illness and abuse in my family: “How brave,” many have said. Some adding, “I couldn’t do what you do.” Meaning: I couldn’t — wouldn’t — reveal what you choose to reveal.
Far be it from me to judge anybody’s suffering and what they choose to do with it. Many times I’ve wished I had kept my mouth shut, as a writer, about many things.
A therapist once told me that I have trouble distinguishing secrecy from privacy, and she was right. She’s still right.
But vulnerability is a taboo, and one I believe every writer should violate. I’ve always believed that it is my obligation — my calling, I am apt to call it in my more priestly moods — to try to tell the truth about that which is most difficult to be truthful about. To tell others the truth, as skillfully as possible. To make art out of pain. To heal.
Endings that are beginnings
We are all of us, always, running out of time. “Running,” notice; plays (and all stories, and lives) sprint through their conclusions.
You have heard it said of Shakespeare that his tragedies are over when everybody’s dead, his comedies when everybody’s wed. Though a wedding is a kind of death, as it starts the story of a new life together; and there are survivors onstage at the end of “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet,” etc., to make sense, and poetry, out of what we’ve witnessed together.
Dramaturges will say that one has reached the end when the problem of the play has been solved, when the protagonist’s conflict has been settled. There’s nothing left that has to happen. Our time out of time has run out, and we in the audience are given back to ourselves and our changing bodies — the ever-revising stories of who we think we are.
Endings that feel like beginnings are profound. And if not profound then accurate. As the playwright Sam Shepard said: “The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning.” I like that: “revolving.” We know that the story continues elsewhere, with other characters, without us watching.
So take heart. Another play will make you laugh like this one, cry like that; many will bore, disgust and — if you are lucky — enrage you. The best, that is the most lifelike play, will do all these things and more over the rollicking course of its very limited engagement.
What’s that ancient adage about never dipping your toe in the same river twice? The river’s always changing. But so are we.
It’s a luxury to stand beside the river. As if we are not in it. The young, the healthy enjoy this delusion. They watch the afflicted characters in their stories rush by. The playwright luxuriates this way too, sitting upon the shore composing, as does the audience in the moments in which they are compelled, within the spell of the play.
We are all in the river, in actuality. Essentially we are the water.
I am happy to share that my wife and I currently possess “no evidence of disease.” We have been staying for a week now, as I write these words, in a rented cottage on the banks of an estuary on the southwestern coast of Ireland. The River Sheen on one side, like Time’s river, and a famine graveyard up the hill. Through a window I can see mossy Celtic crosses, one crowned with an almost full bottle of whiskey. A few years ago I would have found my location unnerving. Now it is the skull upon my desk. Because I am awake, I know now that this is life: through the window on the other side of the room I watch my daughter run in the grass above the glimmering Sheen.
Dan O’Brien is a playwright and poet. This article was adapted from his new book “A Story That Happens: On Playwriting, Childhood, & Other Traumas,” published by CB Editions. His poetry collection “Our Cancers” will be published in September by Acre Books