After my daughter died, I knew I had been handed my writing assignment for the rest of my life. If I had been a painter, I would have painted Maya. If I had been a dancer, I would have danced my sorrow. But I was a writer. So I did the only thing I knew. I wrote one hard word after another.
That’s how Swimming with Maya came into being.
Early in my career I had been a newspaper reporter, trained to take notes on everything. And I had always been a devoted journal keeper. At the time Maya died, I was in graduate school working on a master’s degree in creative writing, a dream I had set aside when she was born.
Now I put away the novel I had begun a few months before her accident. Instead, drawing on my journals, photographs, and vivid memories, I wrote the true story of Maya, our life together as mother and daughter, and my struggles as a single parent. I also began to research transplantation, trying to understand the outcome of my decision to give my daughter away in pieces in order to save the lives of strangers.
Ultimately, an article I published in the San Jose Mercury News about our personal experience of organ donation wound up in the hands of a man who knew Maya’s heart recipient. He realized the person I described in my article as “a Chilean businessman” could only be his friend Fernando. After Fernando read my article, for the first time learning details of the life of his anonymous donor, he was determined to meet me.
Through my writing I not only began to heal my grief, I also brought into my life a man who had every reason to want to know everything he could about Maya. Fernando felt my daughter as a mysterious presence in his body. He was intensely curious about her. As I poured out our story to him, I simultaneously experienced it in a new way. I began to record my insights.
Those early writings about Maya – and then about Fernando – ultimately became the thesis for my MFA degree. Then, I began to transform the thesis into a book manuscript. From that manuscript I selected and obsessively rewrote five sample chapters for a book proposal. Ultimately, after taking classes in proposal writing and book publishing, I sought out an editor to help shape the proposal.
Meanwhile, with encouragement from my creative writing professors, I began searching for an agent. What had begun as a way to survive by putting words on a computer screen turned into something entirely different – a hard fought, long drawn out attempt to craft a story that would inform and uplift readers.
Writing to heal is an important tool in the recovery arsenal. But it is not the same as writing for publication. It is an activity of raw emotional processing, whereas writing a book is an intense exercise in crafting a marketable story.
People often ask if writing Swimming with Maya healed me. Honestly, I have to say that working with other grieving parents to share our recovery, going to weekly therapy sessions, journaling, walking, attempting to be a good parent to my surviving daughter, having long talks with family and friends – these are the things that healed me. I did my grief work. And in between I wrote like a banshee.
Writing is powerful medicine. But on its own, it’s only one tool among many. Use all your tools – write if you can (or if you must) – but don’t neglect all the other important activities of self-care. Give your all to grieving and to healing. It’s worth it.