The Freelancer’s Journal: Tales from the Writing Trade (No. 3)

August 24

I got a call last week from a woman in Rochester with an extreme tale of woe. She raised a son born with muscular dystrophy, and he died at 15. She has another son, an Army officer, who developed a neurological disorder following a tour of duty in the Gulf War. He continues to undergo treatment, although his doctors are still baffled by the condition. It has left him severely debilitated.

The book, as she envisions it, would also include flashbacks to experiences she had as a young Holocaust survivor. And there’s more: her older sister, also a Holocaust survivor, suffered a stroke 10 years ago and has since moved nothing but her lips, right index finger, and eyelids. Supposedly she has all her feeling and comprehension but is “locked in.” When discussing her sister, the woman perked up.

“She’s the primary motivation behind my wanting to write this book. I want it to give hope to others suffering from incurable illnesses. I also want to create a page-turning story that makes the reader feel like he’s reading a novel. Ultimately, my concept is for a book that weaves together tragedy, self-help, and humor.”

“Humor, really?” I said, failing to detect any in what she had just told me.

“Life can be humorous under many strange circumstances, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, absolutely. I know what you mean. I think the book you’re proposing sounds extraordinary.”

She got the idea in the middle of one of her typical days—taking her son to the hospital, visiting her sister in the nursing home, waiting at the pharmacy to get a prescription filled.

“It just hit me, a voice inside that said, ‘Is this it? What’s the point of it anyway?’ It made me so depressed, but then I realized all of this would make a great book.”

It still surprises me how wildly different these stories are in their details but basically the same in their motivation. They’re part of the endless quest for alchemy and redemption, the urge to make something out of nothing. In this case, transform an obscure, miserable life into a compelling tale, available to the public.

I’ve been led astray and disappointed so often by these people, so I don’t get my hopes up when I hear from them. Still, it’s impossible to remain blasé. There’s a gravity to their schemes, no matter how ridiculous. Any writer who got involved would bear an immense responsibility—giving value to someone’s pain, even facilitating their catharsis.

“Every life needs a mission,” I said to her. “It seems to me this book is yours. Do you have a budget in mind for the writing?”

Not surprisingly, she didn’t have any cash. When I gave her my terms, knowing it was hopeless, I felt something more than pity. I felt remorse, which was unusual. Here’s a woman, I thought, who has more pain than she (or anyone) has room for. Without a book, an absorbing diversion, where’s it all gonna go?

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