04/09/2013 10:29 am ET Updated Jun 09, 2013

Cancer, Deadlines and Edwardian England

For some authors, their writing routine is not only sacred, it's practically holy and adhered to with superstitious zeal -- the smallest deviation or break from tradition could mean the difference between a good writing day and a bad one.

While writing East of Eden, John Steinbeck began each day by penning a letter to his editor on the left hand pages of his notebook while writing his novel on the facing page. Toni Morrison awoke before dawn each day, made herself a cup of coffee and watched the sun rise before sitting down at her desk to write Beloved. We writers are creatures of habit -- when we discover what gets the creative juices flowing, we stick to it!

Though my routine has yet to produce an East of Eden or a Beloved, I do the same sort of things: I start the coffee, check my email, my social networks, and then free-write three pages in my journal (to flex my creative muscles), before beginning the day's words. Up until last summer, I enjoyed my routine. I was comfortable in my routine. My routine was... routine.

And then I was diagnosed with throat cancer.

The six months prior to my diagnosis had been a whirlwind of intoxicating career successes. I'd signed a contract with Balzer+Bray for a young adult series and had just formally accepted an offer from Gallery Books for the Summerset Abbey trilogy -- which came with a set of brutal deadlines -- when I got the news from my doctor.

The thought of undergoing cancer treatments while writing the ambitious historical fiction series in tandem with my young adult series was overwhelming, but I could not, would not let cancer define the career I had worked so hard for.

But my cozy writer's routine? That was blown out of the water.

I soon learned that cancer in itself can become a full-time occupation. It takes over your life as invasively as the cells take over your body. Doctor's appointments, medication schedules and radiation treatments eat up the few hours you're awake and functional. How was I supposed to write during all of that?

If I had known how difficult it would be, I might have wavered. But ignorance is bliss, so I poured all my nervous energy into planning out the next five months of treatment and recovery the way a frantic bride organizes her wedding.

My oncologist tells me now that she honestly didn't believe I would be able to write throughout radiation and recovery -- she'd seen how debilitating these particular treatments can be and it wasn't unusual for treatment and recovery to take up to six months.

I had two books due during that time and another due two months after that. Thankfully, the good doctor didn't share her doubts with me at the beginning of my journey and I remained naively unaware of just how difficult writing, researching and hitting my deadlines would be.

Inevitably, my routine changed. Instead of drinking coffee and heading to my desk each morning, I drank one of the three high calorie smoothies I would be downing for the day. Getting enough nutrition during throat radiation is almost impossible and my diet consisted of smoothies, smoothies and more smoothies. Then, for five days per week for seven straight weeks, I'd head straight to my radiation treatment instead of parking myself at my computer to work. Upon returning home, I'd finally get to my desk and write until I could no longer keep my eyes open.

After taking a short break to sleep, I would head back to my desk and write some more.
And on top of all that, I hadn't begun to consider the mind-numbing effects of the morphine, which was pumped ceaselessly through my system from about mid-June until the beginning of November. Morphine made me sleepy, dreamy and lethargic... but somehow, I managed to write through it.

In fact, I wrote through everything -- nausea, mouth pain, throat pain, headaches, and the occasional fits of melancholia and mini rages. My routine became about survival, not superstition or writer's block. But surprisingly, it was the writing that ultimately saved me, not what wore me down.

Edwardian England became my landscape, my refuge, the place my mind ran to when my real life got too tough. The intricacies of aristocratic etiquette during that time, the details of life in the English countryside, and the development of my characters were all consuming. I researched the era until my eyes crossed, and wrote until my fingers were numb. Every scene completed was a triumph, and every chapter finished was a reason for celebration -- and, most importantly, a reason to keep on going. I may have been losing weight, but my books got fat and I met every deadline I was given.

Through my experiences with cancer and deadlines, I've learned a lot about myself, my writing process and my own particular brand of crazy. Most authors have gone through chaos of some kind or another and come up with their own rules for survival. Here are mine:

Ask for help. Be ready when people ask if there's anything they can do. Most of your friends and family would like to help out but aren't sure how. I made a schedule of people who could take me to my treatments so my husband wouldn't have to miss work every day. I asked a neighbor to help out with the yard work. ASK.

Focus on your characters. My characters spoke to me with their stilted British voices and I allowed them and their stories fill my mind and take me away from the pain and emotional tumult I often felt. Focusing on something else besides the cancer helped.

Prioritize. You can't do everything you normally would and get healthy at the same time. For me, health and writing were priorities and so I focused on those two things alone. My mantra became radiation, write, rest.

Stay positive. I don't know how many times I channeled the proverbial little engine that could: "I think I can, I think I can, I know I can, I know I can."

Dig deep. You are stronger than you think you are. I was.

Through it all, I realized that a break from my writer's routine is not the difference between creative inspiration and the dreaded writer's block -- if your characters inspire you, if your stories leave you breathless, then you'll never have a bad writing day... even if you're high on morphine.

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