Using the 55 Fiction Method to Heal After My Leukemia Diagnosis


I’ve been struggling to figure out how to start talking about my leukemia diagnosis and the experiences that followed thereafter. I spent over two hours between yesterday and today digging out and re-reading old emails I sent to friends as updates, as well as emails I received during the time when I was acutely ill.

While I was doing this, I was texting with a friend who became a widow after his wife died of ovarian cancer; he and I share a lot of grief that has held us both hostage for over a year now (which is well after his wife died and after History Teacher left my life.)

He questioned whether I really did have to torture myself by writing about my experiences when I am still so fragile, especially emotionally. I explained to him that if I didn’t write about it, thoughts just perseverate in my mind for hours and days, and lead to random crying sessions and panic attacks.

Just two weeks ago, I was walking Jessie on a crisp and sunny morning, when I just broke down in the middle of the neighborhood after a fleeting memory passed through my head.

Jessie often cocks her head in these moments, licks my leg or jumps up on two legs and looks me square in the eye. Her sensitivity is of its own kind. Unlike the German Shepherd dog I grew up with, who used to put his head in your lap when you were upset, Jessie gets more anxious when I am sad or crying. She isn’t sure if she’s done something wrong and so her response is two-fold: she checks in on me to make sure she hasn’t done anything to upset me and once she’s satisfied that she hasn’t, she returns to her normal musings with one eye always watching me.

Jessie dog

I don’t know what else she can do and I am not sure what I expect. Perhaps I miss the comfort of physical touch, intimacy, or even a hug, and sometimes, Jessie’s paws just aren’t enough.

I just can’t not write about it though.

I was asked by several people to put my story onto paper, and I kept hiding behind the slew of emotions that washed over me and left a residue the way jumping into the ocean for just a minute leaves behind a sandy feeling on your skin — even after you’ve dried yourself in the sun.

I have been trying to scrub that silt off my skin for over a year now but no matter how hard I try, some still remains. And I am not sure writing out the experiences will suddenly heal me, but I do think it’ll make my wounds less tender and help me move forward.

I have to try because living with this much messiness in your head would make anyone go mad. And there are days where I do feel like I’m becoming unhinged; I go through several physical symptoms and emotions in short bursts and often find I have to coach myself hour by hour, day by day.

Most days are good, but some days are just… hard.

I needed to just start writing, so I thought I would piggyback off an interesting exercise that one of my co-fellows conducted at our yearly retreat. It’s called 55 fiction. This method of writing fiction was created by author Steve Moss in 1987 as a short story contest for readers of an entertainment weekly called “The New Times” for the town of San Luis Obispo, California. The rules were simple:

1. The story must be 55 words or less (this rule is non-negotiable).

2. There must be a setting.

3. There must be at least one character.

4. There must be some form of conflict.

5. There must be a resolution.

In 2000, “The Journal of the American Medical Association” published an article by two doctors, using 55 fiction, who found the method to be a concise and healing way to reflect on patients and physician experiences. Because I have an interest in this form of reflective writing (often called narrative medicine), I thought it would be a perfect way to start my own story.

The stakes are low, the pressure is minimal, and in 55 words, I feel comfortable enough that just a few words can propel my narrative forward. But, instead of starting at the onset of my diagnosis — with all the details of the pain and anguish I went through — I decided that I would begin with when I started to heal:

When Jessie came into my life, I had given up on ever finding someone to love again. My cancer-ridden body had betrayed me and someone I loved so deeply had left me for a simpler, less complicated life. But her kisses, wet snout, and loving eyes found its way onto my lap and into my heart.

This post was originally published on The Brown Mistress of Medicine.

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