Creative Nonfiction

What Can We Steal From Amy Monticello’s “Communing with Cancer”?

Title of Work and its Form:  “Communing with Cancer,” creative nonfiction
Author: Amy Monticello
Date of Work: 2013
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece was originally published by the very cool The Nervous Breakdown.  You can find it here.  (And find it you should!)  The piece was subsequently picked up by the top-notch online magazine Salon and was published under the title, “When I Parented My Father.”

Bonuses: Ms. Monticello maintains a blog that you should visit.  Here‘s a fascinating interview Ms. Monticello gave about her chapbook, Close Quarters.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure

This is the story of how Ms. Monticello dealt with the illness and death of her father.  The gentleman suffered from a couple tumors and a couple heart attacks, but didn’t suffer the kind of physical pain and psychological deterioration she feared.  The sad death of her father is tied to several other parts of her life and understanding of death.  Ms. Monticello had recently participated as a veterinarian put down her mother’s horse.  As the cells were metastasizing inside her father in secret, Ms. Monticello was trying to create a child with the help of her husband.  The essay ends as the author points out that she has been grieving for three months and is still working through the grieving process.

Ms. Monticello structures her essay in an interesting manner, and these choices help you determine the parts of the story that she wishes to emphasize.  You might think that this kind of story would begin at the father’s funeral and then Ms. Monticello would employ a flashback to the time before the illness.  Or you might think that Ms. Monticello would begin with a scene in which she is caring for her father.  Instead, the essay begins in the urologist’s office.  At once, father and daughter are seeing the kidney tumor that is causing such problems.  After a sad and descriptive paragraph, she describes her desire to become pregnant and how her plans would change in light of the illness.  (Even though the child would also take on additional meaning.)  Based upon this choice and others, I don’t think that the essay is supposed to be primarily about the illness or even about the nurturing instinct she proudly exercises in the piece.  (One of the lines that arrives later in the essay seems like a primary theme to me: “Creating and ending life: they require superhuman courage.”)

If I didn’t know Ms. Monticello, I might have read her essay and wondered whether or not the father turned out okay.  A few paragraphs in, the author switches from hopeful language about her father—“His house would need to be cleaned”— and refers to her father in the past tense.  (“I was his only child…I adored my funny, loving father…”)  The suspense in the story is not whether or not the gentleman would die.  By informing the reader immediately that he is gone, we’re allowed to focus the more potent source of suspense: how will a loving daughter deal with such grief?

Ms. Monticello’s essay deals with (at least) three big topics: the illness and death of her father, the death of Limerick, the horse and her own desire to nurture that is manifested in trying to get pregnant and in caring for her father.  All of the topics are related, of course, even if they aren’t all in play during the entire essay.  Here’s the great thing Ms. Monticello does.  All of the balls are in the air and they are united in the conclusion of the piece.  Limerick hadn’t been mentioned for a while, but I loved the callback in the third-to-last paragraph.  Here’s a visual metaphor for what I think our writer does so very well:

She sets a number of powerful elements loose and then effortlessly balances them.

Here’s one of life’s saddest truths, as told to Hamlet by Claudius:

‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,

To give these mourning duties to your father.

But you must know your father lost a father,

That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound

In filial obligation for some term

To do obsequious sorrow.

Sadly, we’re all going to lose loved ones, particularly those who are older than we are.  What sets this essay apart?  It’s not simply a story about “grieving the loss of a parent.”  It’s “THE STORY OF AMY MONTICELLO GRIEVING THE LOSS OF A PARENT.”  For better or worse, Ms. Monticello tells you her secrets.  For one, she confesses that she lied to the friends who expressed their gratefulness that her father didn’t suffer.  In a way, Ms. Monticello was instead thinking of herself: “I felt cheated of my daughter duty and robbed of my maternity pact.  My father and an unconceived baby both taken from me.”  Ms. Monticello may not have had the “standard” thoughts we are “supposed to have,” but this is a good thing.  Her experience, though common, was unique and we are all better that she shared it with us.

What Should We Steal?

  • Allow your structure to emphasize what matters most to you.  The form of your piece should enhance its function, so be cognizant as to which parts of your work stand out.
  • Decide from whence the suspense in your story will come.  Once you understand which secrets you need to keep, allow your reader to know just about everything else.
  • Juggle a number of narrative balls…but don’t drop any of them.  Any piece requires you to emphasize different ideas at different times, but don’t forget the other ideas that are waiting to emerge from the background.
  • Acknowledge the truth and admit your secret thoughts.  You may be writing a story about a common occurrence, but you are writing about the way the experience affected you.  You should therefore ensure that you are giving the reader a unique outlook regarding a common source of pain.

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