The Novel I’m Not Writing

There’s a 300-page novel manuscript sitting on my desk. To write it, I had to hitchhike across the country, walk away from the man I thought I’d marry, survive an abusive relationship, and work on the novel nearly every day for three years. It’s not finished yet, but I‘ve reached the point where I can feel myself rushing towards the end. Or I did feel that. Ever since I learned that I probably, “realistically” have cancer, I have’t written a word.

This post was originally supposed to be about that book. The book that is someday going to go right here, under Schecter (Yes, I actually went to Barnes and Noble and took a picture of where my book will go. I keep it on my phone as inspiration/motivation):

Your book here!

The thing is, the story of my novel is so wrapped up in the story of who I’ve been for the past three years that I can’t separate them. So this isn’t a post about a book. It’s a post about who I was up until Monday, August 15th, when I learned that the preliminary test results indicated Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

But before we get to that, here’s the elevator pitch for my book:

After a difficult breakup, a young artist hitchhikes across the country to win back her girlfriend. Along the way, she unravels the family secrets surrounding her brother’s suicide.

The elevator pitch has changed a lot over the past three years. It was always a book about lost love and hitchhiking, but the dead brother is a more recent addition. This post is the story of how the book began and how it changed, and it’s also the story of how three years ago, I irrevocably upended a life that wasn’t right for me, and reconstructed a new one, which was itself “realistically” just upended by cancer.

One weekend in February 2013, there was a blizzard in the New England town where I was living. It snowed 31 inches. My boyfriend of six years and I went outside around midnight to stand in the middle of the hurtling snow. The next morning, I took this picture:

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Walk two miles in this

By Monday, the town still hadn’t plowed our street, though the main drag a block away was clear enough for light traffic. No buses were running. The sidewalks were covered in hip-deep snow. And I had a doctor’s appointment to get to.

I decided to walk. The going was extremely slow because, like I said, I was stumbling through 31 inches of snow. I’m also a Southern girl who spent seven years living in California, so the best footwear I had was a pair of rain boots. After about a minute, my feet were drenched in icy water. Add to this the four-wheel drive vehicles spewing me with filthy ice à la an extremely frozen Carrie from Sex and the City, and maybe it’s understandable why I, a petite female, was suddenly moved to do something I’d never dreamt of doing because I had no particular wish to be raped, murdered, and cannibalized.

I stuck out my thumb and hitchhiked downtown.

As soon as I saw the car pulling over, I knew I wanted to write a novel about hitchhiking. It was exhilarating in a way I can’t quite describe. I realized I had this heretofore-untapped ability to stick my thumb out and go anywhere.

Anywhere. Let that sink in for a moment (I had to). I was 26 years old, 5'4" and 115 pounds, a woman who’d been told her whole life to protect herself and steer clear of strangers and always make sure someone knew where she was and wear the right clothes and walk on well-lit streets and…well, it’s a familiar list. The point is, it turned out that the whole time I was protecting myself from The Dangers That Women Must Fear, I could have walked to a highway entrance ramp, stuck out my thumb, climbed into a car with a complete stranger, and headed off on an adventure.

And maybe been raped or killed; I’m not denying that. I’m saying that until that day, I hadn’t thought of hitchhiking around the US as something I was avoiding because it was risky. I had thought of it as something I could not do.

Oh my god, the freedom of learning I’d been wrong. At that time in my life I was very stifled. I don’t have anything bad to say about my relationship with my ex, but he wasn’t the right partner for me and I wasn’t myself with him. I’d quit my job to follow him to New England, where I taught yoga classes at the local gym and led a writing group. In short, I had no focus and, while nothing in my life was going terribly wrong, there also wasn’t a single thing that was going right.

All of a sudden I had a plan, a focus, an adventure, and a goal. I was going to write a novel about a woman who was fearless, someone who traveled all over the country with just her thumbs, trusting her instincts to guide her safely along the freeways. But first, I needed to do some research.

So I decided I would hitchhike across the country, alone.

Once, when I was telling a new acquaintance this story, he interrupted me here to nod sagely. “I see,” he said. “You went hitchhiking so you could break up.”
“Am I that much of a cliché?” I asked.
He laughed. “When the leaf falls from the tree, do you say, Oh that leaf is such a cliché?” (He really talked like this. He was German.) “There are patterns to the ways that people behave. This is one of them.”

That was a spontaneous time in my life, but I’m not normally a spontaneous person. I researched the ever-loving fuck out of hitchhiking. I watched videos and read testimonials. I poured over crime statistics and was surprised to learn that the violent crime rate in 2013 was not much higher than the violent crime rate in 1970. I began to entertain the thought that the world was not the dangerous, rapist-studded hellscape reported by news media and at college orientations.

Of course, no one who told me I’d be raped and killed was satisfied when I pointed them towards crime stats. And I couldn’t tell them, I have do this so I can break up with my wonderful boyfriend. I couldn’t even tell myself that.

Although I did write this in my journal my first day on the road:

Unlike every other goodbye we’ve said — even that first one when I left him in West Virginia for a 6-month stint of long distance — this one feels somehow epic. Or more romantic. It’s that heightened sense of danger, the idea that I actually might not make it back, or that I’ll return a different person. Inaccurately, I compare us to couples who hold each other before someone goes off to war. Later, it occurs to me that we have more in common with a sailor bidding his lover farewell before a sea voyage. I am struck by the fact that I don’t have to go, and that my motivations for doing so are entirely selfish. But I feel as powerless to resist them as all those old stories about the allure of the sea imply.
Preparing to hitchhike at a rest stop outside of Charlottesville, VA in 2013. Before I lost my Rand McNally.

I did it. I might write about my adventures on the road in other posts, and certainly they appear (in altered form) in the novel I hope to publish one day. But here I’ll simply say that I spent six weeks on the road. I hitchhiked 6,500 miles, zig-zagging my way back and forth across the continent. I was neither raped nor killed nor cannibalized. Sometimes, though, I was afraid. Sometimes, I was bored. For a while, I was in love.

By the time I finished the trip, I’d changed as much as I’d hoped and feared I might. I broke up with my ex and moved into a house deep in Brooklyn with cheap rent and four roommates. I let go of the idea that I should work a respectable office job, and instead I nannied so that I’d have the mental space and energy to write. For a year, I worked on the first draft of my novel.

I also settled into an abusive, on-again off-again relationship. This was an interesting decision on my part, as I’d had a bad feeling about this man from the beginning. I met him right after I finished hitchhiking, and my first thought was, I wouldn’t get in his car. I entered the relationship anyway, under the misguided assumption that since I was in a city with police and neighbors rather than alone on the road, I was somehow safe. I was wrong, and I paid more dearly for that false assumption than I ever did for hitchhiking. When my ex eventually went full-on psychotic, I put down the first draft of my novel and didn’t write for three months.

When I did write again, there was no escaping that the story was going to change because I had changed. The first draft of my novel was about love and adventure. The second is about trauma and how to come to terms with it, how to integrate and forgive and move on.

That’s the story of how I spent the past three years writing my novel. It was also, I thought, the story of the second half of my twenties. At twenty-six I found my courage, went on an adventure, left a relationship that was wrong, and started a novel that was right. At twenty-seven I was wounded and I sought help. I spent twenty-eight and twenty-nine writing and healing.

It’s late for a plot twist. Right now, as I await the final word on my diagnosis, the twist is still unfolding. This ratchets up the tension to a stomach-churning anxiety reserved for thrillers I’d really prefer that my life not resemble. Is this the part where I begin to fight cancer and reassess my priorities? The part where I learn I have a rare and incurable autoimmune disease? The part where I think I might have cancer, but actually have nothing important, but my perspective is forever changed?

Am I going to want to start a third draft from scratch?

UPDATE: Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on 8/26/2016

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