by Gail Jeidy
A couple years back, I heard a first-time novelist share how she willed her book to publication by not only visualizing its success but acting as if it were true. This was a writer who had penned other novels, but was not yet successful in breaking the barriers to publication. The part I remember most about her story is how she bought herself an expensive designer handbag and plopped it on the coffee table in the middle of her living room in preparation for her trip to New York. At the time, she had no editor; she had no agent; she had no connections in New York; she had no trip planned. But like the advice shared in Ronda Byrne’s positive-thinking 2006 blockbuster, The Secret, this writer’s dreams came true. She got the agent, sold the novel and carried that handbag with her proudly to New York.
I have also been seeking an agent for my novel and producers for my screenplays. Multiple copies of my manuscripts float around in the world and I, too, have a top-of-mind hope that one day, the call will come that will change my life. I admit, though, I wasn’t thinking of the self-fulfilling handbag prophecy when I spotted the coolest purse a few months back at Vintage Pink on Hawthorne.
The half-moon, mid-sized handbag spoke to me. It was roomy enough to hold a book along with my wallet and other essentials. Plus it looked brand new. And the color was retro pink: a refreshingly soft tint, a bright note to the gray clouds overhead. I plopped down the twenty-two dollar sticker price and strutted out into the rain, happy.
And then a couple months later, the unexpected happened. I got the call that would change my life. I was at Disneyland of all places, the happiest place on earth. Only it wasn’t a publisher or agent calling. It was a nurse from the Good Samaritan Breast Health Center. To paraphrase, she said: “You have breast cancer.”
I looked down at the bag on my shoulder, remembered the magical handbag story and thought, “Pink. I didn’t will this to happen, did I?”
Other thoughts ricocheted through my mind. The mental string included, “What caused this? This wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I’m a well person, not a sick person. Will my high deductible insurance cover it? What about my kids? I’m ruining their spring break. I don’t want to die.”
Then, damn, I got angry. Not about the cancer, but about the writing. “What am I doing with my life? Spending year after year waiting for validation. Now spending another year in treatment and recovery. I can’t waste another day.”
A decade ago, I began easing out of a career in business to write for myself. My strategy was to take the discipline I’d gleaned as an advertising copywriter and apply it to the literary realm. Novelist Jean Auel came to mind. Success like hers would be good. Or screenwriter Mike Rich. I could make this happen.
I studied my craft, joined a writer’s group, started a novel, attended literary conferences; finished another novel, earned my MFA, rewrote my novel along with several screenplays, a bundle of stories and a bunch of columns. I attended other writers’ readings and was genuinely happy for their success. I started teaching writing while continuing to foster my dreams of breaking through the big barrier. My mantra was: “Keep going. Keep going. The worst thing you can do is give up too soon.”
I had small successes but the big doors remained closed. It was like I had paid the dues but couldn’t get in the club. The cancer diagnoses channeled all of my energy and disappointment into one bitter place.
Then something changed. Now, a month out from my diagnoses, I’m no longer angry. Not about the cancer. Not about the writing.
As for the cancer, my prognosis is good. My annual mammogram caught the spots early and they’re confined to one side. I teach Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey in my classes and I’m applying his mythical story structure to my own journey. I’ve crossed the threshold into the Special World, a path that includes tests, allies, battles, chemo, a mastectomy, radiation and will come full-circle home through breast reconstruction.
As for the writing, I am energized. There’s an old saying: “Sometimes you don’t get what you want but you get what you need” and maybe that’s what cancer is to my writing. Now I have a story with stakes, forward momentum and a character in transformation. And whether my work propels far into this world, it doesn’t really matter. Because I’m writing on, over, under and through this challenge. I have a small audience of people who care about me. This feels worthwhile. It’s healing. It’s pink.
Gail Jeidy has been a writer throughout her career (freelance journalism, TV and business) and has focused on dramatic writing in multiple forms over the past 10 years. Her writing credits include regional and national magazines, newspapers, literary journals (Stymie, Quiddity, Common Thought, Mason’s Road, among others), the Prairie Home Companion website, and short-list in several recent screenplay competitions. She earned a BS from the University of Wisconsin and completed an MFA (fiction and scriptwriting) from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., in 2010. Gail teaches script writing at Portland Community College. Find out more at The Hero’s Journey.