“You are lucky to be one of those people who wishes to build sand castles with words, who is willing to create a place where your imagination can wander. We build this place with the sand of memories; these castles are our memories and inventiveness made tangible. So part of us believes that when the tide starts coming in, we won't really have lost anything, because actually only a symbol of it was there in the sand. Another part of us thinks we'll figure out a way to divert the ocean. This is what separates artists from ordinary people: the belief, deep in our hearts, that if we build our castles well enough, somehow the ocean won't wash them away. I think this is a wonderful kind of person to be.”
—Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
I left Texas on a hot August morning when the sky was as unworried as a child’s brow. Hours later, the plane descended between fat gray clouds. Delicate tears of rain smattered sideways on the window, and I smiled. This was just how I’d imagined Columbus, Ohio to be—in Scott’s story, at least.
We first met Scott last December, at a dinner that left us all stunned at how quickly strangers could come to love one another. Since January, he and I have been writing his book together. Two or three phone calls a week for several months led to the creation of his fifty-page outline, a detailed, narrative chapter-by-chapter blueprint of his book. After that, we dove in to chapter phone calls.
Scott is a wonderful storyteller. Five years after he was diagnosed with stage four cancer, he’s close enough to the experience to recall vivid details—the snap of his radiation mask being bolted into the table, the half-hour ordeal of taping his tubes to his chest before lowering himself into the bath—but removed enough to explore its larger meaning: how we can love ourselves, fully, through illness, rather than fight; how we can take responsibility for our role in the healing collaboration; and how we can apply these philosophies beyond the world of cancer. I always leave our phone calls feeling restored and inspired, eager for the dedicated writing time in which I’ll spend six hours immersing myself in the universe of his book.
Writers of other people’s stories face several inherent challenges, navigated differently each time. The biggest, in my opinion, is this: how can you, as a writer, authentically capture someone else’s voice while avoiding writing a manuscript that reads like a very clean, very polished transcript? How can you portray an experience in a compelling way, go beyond the simple physical details provided, while still respecting the truth of that story? The answer is a separate challenge: imagination.
In our process, it’s typical that the first few chapters of a client’s book read fairly cautiously. We, the writers, are seeking to earn clients’ trust by driving well within the lanes of their own storytelling. See? we wish to say. We’re listening. Sometimes, it takes months to build that trust to a level that allows greater creativity to bloom. Other times, trust is there from the beginning.
After Scott read the first drafts of his prologue and chapter one, I called him nervously for feedback. What he said is a gift that has made this process one of the most joyful I have experienced.
“I don’t feel you in this,” he said.
I scuffed dirt beneath the outdoor bench swing, pushing myself backwards. “Well,” I said, “I was more interested in capturing your voice.”
Scott was quiet for a moment, and I imagined him nodding as he processed my response.
“Katie,” he said, “what we can create together will be far greater than my story alone. I want you to write this the way you want to write this. I want to feel your spirit in this book as much as my own.”
Surprised tears made me blink quickly. I couldn’t believe the beauty of his invitation. I had to stop myself from asking, “Are you sure?”
So I completely rewrote the prologue and chapter one, and while every chapter since then has seen multiple revisions (no first draft is ever a final draft, period), I have felt a sweet sense of freedom in their creation. It’s like driving an empty, scenic highway, taking the curves as fast or slow as I desire, stopping as often as I want to enjoy the view. I read through transcripts, I fact-check every detail I can, but I let the story find its own language in my mind. As a result, the writing happens quickly. I wrote Chapter 6 almost entirely in a three-hour plane ride. Only the final paragraph eluded me, and it finally rushed to mind when I wasn’t even thinking directly about the book. I was looking out at a lake, where sunlight splayed across the surface and I suddenly recalled how Scott described a childhood driveway, marigolds lining both sides, and how his dad used to push him in a homemade Go-Kart. Instantly, I knew that this memory would be the one to incongruously describe how Scott felt when he was wheeled off for surgery.
Did Scott really remember the Go-Kart in that moment? I don’t think so. But he felt comfortable and peaceful, the way he did as a child, and the anesthesia had lent him a giddy sense of disorientation, and beyond that, his family waited elsewhere in the hospital to see whether he would emerge from the neck dissection with the same smile he wore walking in. The memory fit exquisitely as a way of conveying a truth without stating it directly.
Imagination, when invited into this process, can elevate what happened into why it matters.
And yet, there are limitations. Of course there are. When it comes to real places and real people, imagination is a poor substitute for reality. Scott and I recognized this early on, and we decided together that at some point, when it felt right, I would go visit him in Columbus. He would take me to the most pivotal places in his journey and introduce me to the people who were his true collaborators in healing. I would be able to compare the reality with my imagined versions, see how close or distant my renderings were, and adjust them accordingly.
The sky. Low and whitewashed, clouds promising rain that sprinkled on us throughout our twenty-four hours together: exactly how I had imagined a Midwest winter (though, of course, it wasn’t yet fall, and the days were still warm and muggy). Wet leaves, the color of my favorite merlot lipstick, pressed flat on the sidewalks: exactly how I had imagined them. But I hadn’t known that Scott’s old condo building was a tower of dark glass—I had imagined it closer to chrome, silvery in the sunlight. I hadn’t known that his old balcony overlooked a baseball field, and I took note of how empty and clean and bereft it looked beneath minimal lighting. There were times in Scott’s journey when loneliness was a presence, something alive, when he closed his window shades to black out a view of a world he could no longer access. I knew when I saw it that the dark baseball field would emerge, if only fleetingly, in one of those moments to reflect back at Scott the loss he felt. It was something I couldn’t have simply imagined from my desk in Texas.
As part of my tour, Scott parked his SUV and we walked across a triangular slice of park tucked within downtown Columbus. I hadn’t realized it was so big, or that an old, elegant arch stood at its entrance, salvaged from the old Columbus Union Train Station.
“I wanted to know how things really felt,” Scott told me again as we tread on the wet grass. “I wanted to know what a leaf sounded like when I stepped on it, how it crackled from the heel all the way to the toe.”
We walked until we reached a stone retaining wall, which we hauled ourselves on top of and walked like a balance beam. A car horn bleated from busy Spring Street near the wall, and I was overcome with the spiritual sensation of occupying the space where a ghost of Scott remained, shocked at his diagnosis, terrified of his future, but reaching a new level of consciousness. It was an intimate kind of time travel, this invitation into the past.
Each “stop” took me deeper into Scott’s world. He showed me the first house he’d ever built, and when we saw a boy walking home with a backpack nearly outsizing him, Scott said, “My kids would’ve been like him, walking this way home from school.” I saw the home Scott lived in when he realized how desperately alone he was; it was beautiful, white columns and curves set upon acres of farmland.
I met Tim, Scott’s good friend and doctor who had first felt the lump in Scott’s neck. Scott had described him as the kindest of souls, a doctor who would be at home in horse-and-buggy days. I imagined, though, his office building being clinical. In fact, its exterior was warm redbrick, with a decorative black and gold door that Scott’s old company had manufactured. Tim and Scott embraced like brothers. Tim was quiet and soft-spoken, with blue eyes that crinkled with his smile behind frameless lenses, and when he didn’t fully understand a question I posed, he asked me to explain it to him further. No sense of ego, just gentle curiosity. His sense of caring was one I’ve seen in only a handful of physicians.
“I have had so many sleepless nights,” he told us, his voice nearly breaking, “wondering if my patients are going to do what I tell them to do.”
At the hospital where Scott received chemotherapy and radiation, we met with his surgeon, Matt, and nurse, Leslie. Matt spent an hour with us, surprising me with his youthful, boyish appearance despite Scott’s accurate description and my own Google imaging, and Leslie moved with athletic confidence, greeting patients with nicknames and kisses on the cheek. “Hey, Barry White!” she said to a man in a wheelchair, leaning down to give him a hug. “He has the deepest baritone voice,” she explained to us with a laugh as we walked out.
I held my breath as we walked into the chemotherapy suite. A quick glance around the room showed people slumped in chairs. A glimpse of bald heads, of skinny shoulders curved inward. A feeling of sadness. The air was different here, thicker and warmer. The first man I really saw had long, scraggly dark hair and a beard. An oxygen tube snaked up both nostrils. He was sitting down, and our eyes caught accidentally before I looked away. A few minutes later, as Scott and I were leaving, the man was standing by the reception desk. Our eyes met again, lingered this time, and I smiled at him, embarrassed by how my first impulse had been to look away.
Outside the hospital, Scott and I sat on a bench as we waited for the valet to return his car.
“So,” he said, smiling, “tell me. How has this been for you?”
“Magical.” The word escaped without thought, and I hoped it didn’t disrespect the heaviness of the memories we had just walked through.
But it was true. The reality of place and people had given a new weight to my imagination, leaving me eager to return home and perform alchemy.