Lately I have been writing about bodies, mostly my mother’s and
mine. The more I write about my mother and me, the more I realize
how thoroughly we are connected, woven together like a DNA strand.
It is not just our genes that bind my body to my mother’s but a series
of bodily traumas, the most poignant being her diagnosis with metastatic
breast cancer and my experience as a pedestrian versus motor vehicle.
I recovered from that accident, and my mother went into remission,
but each of us now lives inside an altered body. The memory of those
traumas is imprinted beneath my skin.
Some months ago, I finished revising a book-length memoir weaving
together my mother’s story and mine, explaining how we were able not
just to survive these medical traumas but to live with them. Because
book publication is a slow thing and because there are parts of this
woven story I wanted to send out into the world more quickly, I decided
to rework a chapter of the memoir, revising it into a stand-alone
essay. I had rewritten the chapter several times for the memoir, but
revising the piece as an essay was more difficult. At first I could
not find a way to make the piece work as an essay, but then teaching
freshman composition class one day, I heard myself reminding my students
that revision literally means to re-see.
If I wanted the material from my chapter to stand alone as an essay,
I had to re-see it as an essay. An essay could not rely on the rest
of the manuscript to provide context, an ending or beginning, a cast
of characters, OR a larger central theme—I knew my revision would
have to be fairly radical. In the chapter version, I had taken the
story of my mother beginning her cancer treatment and braided it together
with a narrative of a dynamic time in my own recovery from the accident.
For the essay, I decided to focus on the cancer, which meant culling
out the material that dealt with larger themes of the book. I pulled
out all pieces of the narrative related to my accident and recovery—there
went a dozen pages, maybe more.
What I had left could not stand alone either, so I had to reconstruct
the piece. I did not think the scenes depicting the story of my mother’s
cancer had to change much, but they were also not enough. Without
the material about my accident, my presence as the narrator of the
piece was minimal. And this was a memoir, so what about me? As the
narrator, I was part of the story not only through the fact of my
participation in my mother’s experience but through the way I experienced
my own body during my mother’s cancer. I looked again at the section
dealing with my adolescence and realized I needed to develop it a
little further (this lead to a revision of that section in the larger
My own story was emerging as part of the essay, but when I sent a
draft to my writing group, they thought it still did not stand alone.
This all happened twenty years ago, they pointed out. Why was I writing
about it now? And why would a reader care? Those were the questions
that allowed me to fully re-see the piece. I was writing about my
mother’s cancer because I was looking down the lens of that disease
as a woman not unlike the woman she was then, and it scared me. I
wrote into that fear. And I wrote into the way my mother’s cancer—in
remission now for nearly two decades—still seems to follow both of
One of the challenges I face in writing nonfiction, particularly memoir,
is deciding which parts of an experience to include. I certainly faced
that challenge in revising “Revolving Glass.” I have written the essay
into a piece quite different from the version I started with, because
I have included different aspects of my life. As the essay emerged
through revision, I came to see that it had much to do with my being
afraid of my own body and what I have learned to do with that fear.
To fully realize this part of the essay, I had to include experiences
that fell outside the content of the piece in its original chapter
form. My dogged commitment to cancer screenings, the “fire drill”
appointments with my mother, my own biopsy: each is a lived experience
I had to recall in memory then decide to craft in writing for the
Measuring by word-count, I’d say about one third of “Revolving Glass”
is composed of material that is not part of the piece as it appears
in the memoir. To write it as an essay, I have had to reshape and
re-imagine, to cut away old tissue and graft on new, to re-see the
connection between my mother’s body and mine, and to lay it out again
on paper, altered.