Beg, borrow, import, and out-right steal
33 days until graduation; a bit of my book
Recently, a student told me that they didn’t know how to describe a machine that was in their story. They had drawn a picture of it, and could see it, but, as they more or less said, “I don’t know how to describe it.” We all have thousands of daydreams and neon pinwheels in our minds every week and day. They are images, or bits of feelings, but those images are difficult to crystallize (carbonize) or paint into words. This is especially true when it comes to creative writing and if you aren’t familiar with a world, a concept, a time period, an object. This is true even if you’re making up a story; perhaps especially if you’re making a story up. For the student, it wasn’t just the idea that they were making up a machine that was difficult. It was the idea of machinery that tripped them up.
They didn’t know how to describe machines. I suggested she find a manual of a giant turbine, or find a video, a tour of a “really big machine.” Find the language you need to describe the reality you need. Do research. I think of how the writer Colson Whitehead used language from furniture magazines from the 1960s to create the world in his novel The Harlem Shuffle. Or Michael Chabon spent a couple weeks inhaling everything about Antarctica exploration before 1941 to create a chapter in Kavalier and Clay. Eleanor Catton used the 1860s gold rush in New Zealand to inspire her award winning Luminaries (which I top-shelf recommend).
“Good artists borrow, great ones steal,” Picasso said once, long ago. Or something like that. Austin Kleon wrote on this concept in his book, Steal Like an Artist. I impart this advice to myself and to students when we are stuck in description or in need of the heavy lumber needed to fill paragraphs. I encourage research when I feel verisimilitude creaking and the muscles of my details deteriorating. I needed language and research to understand diabetes in the book that I wrote about my mother and my own health issues.
Below is a small section from my book, which is all still in a draft form. These paragraphs borrow from interviews with family, photographs, journal entries. I also read diabetes manuals, read websites, looked at medical texts, spoke with endocrinologists. I tried to digest all of this and take notes, make highlights. It all helped me create the language and authority and fluency I needed to write those paragraphs. It’s like borrowing and stealing, or importing material. Or it’s a hot mix of all three.
So, without further ado, here is a brief section of my borrowing, importing, and stealing of language, scenes, ideas to create some writing.
Excerpt from INHERITANCE
Mom’s life changed when she was 15. It was the summer of 1975 when it happened. The night before, according to a childhood friend Martha, who was with Mom at the time, Mom wanted a lemon pie that my grandmother had made. “I really want that pie,” Martha recalled Mom saying. Mom apparently snuck down from her bedroom into the kitchen and ate the whole pie late at night and went to bed. This had been an unusual thing for Mom to do. Was this the beginning of Mom’s diabetes? Her body surging for sugar? My grandmother, who I call Nana, doesn’t remember the pie. What Nana does remember is the next day. Mom was in the dining room. “I noticed all the symptoms right away. She could not stop peeing, she was thirsty, and had double vision. I just knew. I knew,” Nana told me. Nana was a trained EMT at the time, and because of that training, she knew how to spot diabetes. This is when the disease began for Mom.
Mom was the first of four children, born in February of 1962. As a teen, Mom hiked often, rode a bicycle, loved animals, was a good student, took an interest in the medical field, and had a strong curiosity about the outside world. One picture from this time stands out with her out on the road, in her hometown, the rural mountain town Beulah, Colorado. She walked this road many days and nights between her and nearby Martha’s house. “Walking each other home,” is how Martha put it. In a photograph from the time, pine trees surround Mom. She has a striped shirt, long tanned legs exposed from shorts, bare feet on the pavement, all smiles, head off to the side, and hand on her hip.
Mom convinced her parents to hold a foreign exchange student at their home that would enable Mom to travel to Europe during summer of 1975. After Mom returned from the trip was when Mom developed diabetes. My grandparents took her into Pueblo, where she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes (now called type 1 diabetes). “They showed Kristi how to inject insulin by practicing on an orange. The doctor took up a syringe and inserted into the fruit, then Kristi would try,” Nana told me.
“We thought it would be fine. And it was. We never had any big problems when Kristi lived here. We had to get soda pop for the first time, for in-case of a low blood sugar, but we followed a strict diet from the doctors. At the time we thought it would be very manageable and Kristi would be fine. It was something we could handle, and she seemed to handle it well all the way to college. No problems or big events.”
“She was homecoming queen, beautiful, smart, got to go to Europe. She was perfect,” one family member told me. Mom seemed to get through the rest of high school with no issues, nothing major. It was manageable. Mom was perfect and so how could such a perfect person get so sick? This is the story I inherited.
What happened to Mom (and all who have any type of diabetes) was a rise of glucose in her blood. “We all need glucose, a type of sugar, to fuel our brain, heart, and muscles,” is how a type 1 diabetes manual puts it. We extract glucose from the soggy bread slathered by our saliva, the earthy crunch of lettuce, or the waxed fusion of a hard candy that plops into our stomach and crawls through our intestine, and then goes to our blood. The extraction tool––moves these blocks of energy from the blood to cells––is the hormone insulin that is secreted from the pancreas. Too little glucose, and you fade out of consciousness, and become fatigued. Too much, and over years, your body becomes damaged; nerves become closed and can’t receive nourishment, blood vessels pop or break down, bones get infected, organs fail. Each of those symptoms happened to Mom. All of them that are illustrated and highlighted in the manuals and websites. This was what I needed to figure out. How did this happen to Mom? How did Mom’s glucose get so high, or why was it so high in her blood? This, too, was me assuming that high glucose caused all the ailments Mom had. Most bodies can maintain the right amount of glucose in the blood, a harmonious and homeostasis level, constantly regulating, constantly maintaining a balance in the entire system. I knew nothing of this as a teen.
What happened to Mom on that day in 1975 happened because of the immune system. In the case of type 1 diabetes, the immune system destroys precious beta cells in the pancreas. The pancreas is a yellow and pink smear of an organ, located just behind your stomach. The beta cells are vaporized, silenced, shut down, wiped out. There is no reason for this destruction. Some experts surmise that environmental factors trigger such a response from the immune system, but these theories lack evidence. There is no cure and no true explanation. It just happens. Heredity of the disease is an indicator––more likely to happen if it is in your family––but in knowing where the disease came from or why the disease winds-up in some people’s genes and not others? That is a mystery. We may know more about the origin of the moon than the exact origin of type 1 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes develops in people over time, the insulin they create often can’t cover the glucose in the blood. There are 1.6 million people with type-1 diabetes in the U.S. today whereas there are 32 million people with type-2.
Beta cells are the only cells in the body that produce insulin. To have type-1 diabetes is like suddenly losing a furnace in winter, or grocery stores, or stoplights. A system is thrown off by its loss and effects the entire body. Suddenly, you don’t have an important tool for your complicated system. Glucose goes unleashed, unregulated. Autoimmune diseases are by nature a mystery. In multiple sclerosis, the immune system destroys important nerves that creates communication problems between the brain and body. In rheumatoid arthritis, the body goes after the body’s tissues, causing damage and inflammation to joints. Inflammatory bowel disease screws up the intestines. The vast and adaptive wonder of the human immune system in all these diseases misfires. It “makes a mistake” and burns up the wrong cells.
33 days until graduation! I shall become Master Tuck soon. More good news to come.