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Writing Strong Women

The following is a crosspost of my contribution to  Mary Victoria’s  “Writing Strong Women” series.

Let me tell you the stories of three women.

Or, to be more precise, the stories of a dead woman, a living girl, an imaginary girl.

The dead woman’s story—as I witnessed it—starts when she was alive.

It’s my first year of medical school, and we’re learning biochemistry, the molecular basis of disease and medication. Not. so. lively. Then, one day we’re treated to an interview between Dr. Gilbert Chu, a famous oncologist, and a vivacious octogenarian, whom I’ll name Helen (not her real name).  In her late sixties, Helen was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and begun on chemotherapy. At a hospital outside of my academic center, her chemotherapy regimen was confused, and she was accidentally given a medication called Cisplatin. It’s a platinum molecule turned biological weapon: it crossbinds DNA, crumpling up genes like a hand wadding up a sheet of newspaper. In very small doses, cisplatin is highly effective against certain types of cancer. Helen was supposed to receive a lot more of a milder drug, but she was given cisplatin at the dosage for a milder drug. Technically, Helen was given a ‘massive overdose.”

The horrors of routine chemotherapy are well-known: hair loss, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, etc. Cisplatin is notorious for sudden, violent side effects. So much so that oncology nurses sometimes refer to it as “cis-flatten’em.” Helen’s massive overdose pushed her beyond what was well known and into blindness, deafness, grand mal seizures, kidney failure. At this point, Helen was transferred to my hospital. Under the direction of Dr. Chu, a technological effort worthy of a medical TV drama was begun. Helen just barely survived, but she was rendered nearly deaf. Her vision was drastically decreased for more than a year, and she required a kidney transplant

And yet…and yet…her character suffered no damage. During the interview, it became apparent that she had a personality bigger than the whole hospital. She was cracking jokes with and about the famous oncologist. When she overheard a few of the female med students talking about the upcoming med student formal dance, she told a few of the male medical students in the front row (included me) that she was single. My class loved her. She was incandescent. That’s just who she was. It wasn’t surprising when we learned that one of the doctors caring for her (not Dr. Chu) fell in love with her; after her recovery, they were married and lived well until his death decades later.

It boggled my mind. Where was her anger at the medical establishment? Where was the bitterness I would have felt if I had been put through such an ordeal? When she answered questions from the audience, I asked exactly that. She grew serious and said something like, “I was angry and bitter. But when you’re alone and in the dark, and you’re blind and deaf, when you’re trapped, you have to find a way to go on. You don’t immediately realize there’s a choice of how you go on. And somehow I went on in a way so that I could talk to you all, here, much later.”

That ended Helen’s lecture. I didn’t suppose ever to see her again. A few weeks later, I encountered the story of the living girl.

I met Angela (not her real name) shortly after she lost her heart. And both her lungs. The surgeons cut down the center of her chest and took out all three of the concerned organs and replaced them with those of a donor. She had a very rare disease of unknown cause. She was 16 years old. I was assigned to her in a big sib / little sib program between medical students and children with chronic disease. This was our first meeting and she was only 5 days post op. No one yet knew if her body would reject the transplanted organs: a result that would put her in mortal danger. As I sat there, on the flimsy hospital chair, she looked me over and—in the tone unique to an exasperated young woman—said, “Well…this is awkward.” A week later, she texted me “OMG, I’m holding my heart in my hands.” I had been in histology lecture, but afterwards I stopped by her room. She was holding a dilated and plasticized bit of muscle. “Why the hell do they give us these things back?” she asked.  And, really, I don’t know why they gave her heart back to her. It’s…odd. Anyway, Angela didn’t reject her transplants. I would sit with her when she had to come into the hospital, or wait for an appointment in clinic. Sometimes she was bitter. She would wonder “why me?” Not an uncommon feeling for a 16 year old; even for those 16 year olds possessing all of their original internal organs.  But Anglia is tough. Nowadays, she’s doing well, going to college. Occasionally, she texts me during her more tedious lectures.

But before Angela got to college, there was the story of the imaginary girl.

Her name is Stephanie. That’s her real name. To the extent that she’s real. She’s a teenage brain cancer patient who discovers she’s in a hospital for the dead. Things get weirder and more science fictional as the story goes on. You can read it here. Or, if you’re the listening type, you can hear it on an Escape Pod podcast. I wrote that story briefly after meeting Helen and Angela. In fact, Stephanie is the composite of Helen and Angela’s characters jammed into a plot I dreamt up during a boring neuroscience lecture. I was also drawing upon my experiences from the year I spent with my father after his diagnosis of a very dangerous type of cancer. (Dad’s, miraculously, fine now.) When I learned that story was going to be published in the Seeds of Change anthology I was thrilled. It was my first publication.

I asked Angela if she wanted a copy of the anthology. She didn’t like sci-fi. And that’s cool. But I was pretty sure Helen would like a book. Even if she didn’t read the story; she’d like knowing she was part of the book. I kept meaning to ask our famous professor to make a book hand off to Helen. But one thing led to another. I was busy. Medical students usually are. I decided to wait until the next year; Helen would come in to give her lecture to the new class of first years. However, when I was taking a spring-quarter autopsy elective, the pathologists brought in Helen’s body. She’d died suddenly; the pathologists were supposed to find out why. It felt like a kick in the gut, like I wanted to vomit or cry. I didn’t do either. I turned away before they opened Helen up; I left the room. So far that has been the only sight in medical training I have turned away from.

And I’ll never forget Helen’s character.

And that brings me to my only contribution of advice for this wonderful series on writing strong women: Take note of extraordinary women, try to feel what about them moves you, combine aspects of different extraordinary women (if needed), and then run them through the labyrinth of your plot.

For writers, I don’t think it’s helpful to think about character. Female or male. Plot, sure, think about plot long and hard. Think about what your reader will think about the plot. The labyrinth, the puzzle, misdirect your reader so you’re always one step ahead. Cat and mouse, cloak and dagger. It’s like that.

But character is harder, in my opinion. No amount of thinking is going to get you there. You have to find the characters. Female or male.  The protagonists of my first novel, Spellwright, are lifted from the characters—mostly boys—I witnessed when I was a learning disabled student in special ed. The protag of my second novel, Spellbound, is inspired by several female surgeons. (Coincidentally, surgeons are often interesting people. It’s a male dominated field, so many of the women—especially those who broke into the field years ago—are especially interesting.)

But extraordinary patients and surgeons are just the crowd I fell in with. I’ve no doubt you find women just as extraordinary in a law firm, sandwich shop, or nuclear submarine. You just have to look for them.

So that’s it. My only bit of advice. It’s a simple idea really. If you want to write extraordinary women or men, don’t think about them, go out and talk to them.

Comments

20 Responses to “Writing Strong Women”

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  • What a beautiful article. It makes me so happy to read about people that have survived cancer and have gone on to lead full lives. And I can’t imagine the strength these women must posses to not give in to the anger and despair that would be natural to feel after everything they have gone through.

    I especially enjoyedreading about Helen’s marriage to her doctor. That’s the kind of stuff romance novels are made of, though the true stories are the best.

    • 🙂 you’re 100% right there. maybe i should track down the story of how they fell in love and married!

      • That would be fantastic. I would love to find out more about their story. Though if the story became known it might lead to an influx of new patients to your hospital, hoping for the same happy results 😉

  • Blake, you’re a gift. This helps me. I can feel it digging into my head, burrowing deep. Sometimes there’s advice that you know is good and you ought to take it, but it doesn’t really touch you, you know? And sometimes there’s advice that just grabs you by the hair and drags you off to go do what needs doing whether you like it or not.

    Thanks for the latter, m’dear. 🙂

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  • Wow, that’s fantastic….You know when reading things can totally skew your perception? When you’re thinking in a certain way and something punches a whole right through that, leaving you thinking clearer, or at least differently.

    It is something great, so thank you for that.

  • After listening to and reading Endosymbiont, it’s great to see the inspiration that went into Stephanie. Thanks for an interesting post Blake, even for a non-writer like me!

  • PS. I meant to mention, the link you’ve used for Endosymbiont looks to be dead t’me. Sorry!

  • […] Blake Charlton has written what is to my mind the best analysis ever of an author struggling with strong women characters. […]

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  • This is an amazing article. Your recounts of Helen and Angela are fascinating and inspiring. Helen sound like a character I’d like to know, read more about.

    Strong and interesting female characters in fiction are mighty hard to find – they are there, but they aren’t numerous!

    I look forward to reading one of your books… After listening to you on Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing, I’ve downloaded your samples, can’t wait to read them! 🙂

    • Hi, Ingrid. Thanks so much for stopping by and for the kind words. Glad this post worked for you. If you end up picking up Spellwright or Spellbound, let me know what you think! I hope the words come alive for you.

  • Dear Mr. Carlton,

    I just learned about you from Dr. Brock Eides who featured you in one of his books and plan to introduce your writing to my daughter this summer. She was diagnosed with multiple autoimmune diseases in addition to multiple LDs at age 14. It’s been a rough 3 years but we are now beginning to make progress. Your story gives me hope for my child. Inspired by her rheumatologist, she’d like to be a research scientist someday. In fact, she will be interning at ULCA this coming summer to work with neuroscientists who treat Alzheimer patients. Would it be possible to tell us hoe you were able to understand and overcome your learning difference? TIA for reading this.

    • Hi there! Thanks so much for stopping by the blog, and apologies for the delayed response. I’m so glad that you came across the Eides’s book, as I think it’s a wonderful resource for young people with learning disabilities to realize that they have a great deal of potential. And it sounds like you are there to help your daughter realize that she has exactly that, great potential. If she’s already interning at UCLA at 15, it sounds like she’s well on her way. As to my specific strategies, as of now they are best described in the Eides’s books. A lot of the tricks I learned, I discovered with my parents, who were very supportive. So if you stay engaged with your daughter’s education–as it sounds like you are–I’m sure the two of you will discover her particularity strengths and the ways in which she learns and performs best. I wish you and her the very best of luck!

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