Elizabeth Crowell

"Cancer, So Far"

Winner of the Felice Buckvar Prize for Nonfiction, 2018
Selected by Rivka Galchen

Read the essay here


Elizabeth Crowell

What inspired you to write about your cancer diagnosis and treatment? Is this one of a series of essays that addresses your illness, or a standalone piece?

I often write to understand what I don't understand. The whirlwind of illness was so new to me. Cancer is so complex. Even as talked to others with cancer, I realized how individual my own case was. I found myself writing small vignettes and drawing them together.

I am still writing, and I imagine this part of "Cancer, so Far" will become a larger piece, maybe a book.

“I forget to tell him to kill me” – there are many passages where you aren’t afraid to use strong and direct language like this. Has this always been a part of your style of writing?

Yes. In fact, I usually write a lot and then peel back the writing to emphasize these moments.

The final passage about your disapproval for having everything we do be calculated and predicted is extremely interesting. Is this an idea that you have had on your mind for a while, or did it suddenly come up while sitting in traffic for example?

Both. I have had in my mind an essay/piece about all of us knowing too much. Yet, the most disorienting (or maybe orienting?) thing about having metastatic cancer is this sense that there is less time and there is some distance you want to cover. The metaphor seemed too perfect to pass up!

Was writer’s block ever an issue in this piece? For which passages?

No. I rarely have writer's block.

Which writers have inspired you? What are you currently reading?

For this material, I was really inspired by The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion because of her fluidity with setting and time. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, I was a very young writer when there was a lot of writing about AIDS. I think that work touched me somewhere at my core and helped me write this. Those works include Marie Howe's poetry volume What the Living Do and Mark Doty's Heaven's Coast as well as the work of Paul Monette. A year or so before being diagnosed, I read When Breath Becomes Air, Dr. Paul Kalanithi's memoir of his diagnosis and subsequent death from lung cancer. I keep meaning to go back to that book, but I just can't yet.

I am currently reading Sick by Porochista Khakpour, which is about her long-term struggle with the terror of advanced Lyme Disease. I especially like how she writes about the complexity of illness as part of our endless complexities as human beings.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?

I took a workshop with Pam Houston a few summers ago, before the diagnosis. She offered the most obvious advice ever. Don't confuse your reader. You will alienate him/her.