Susan Conley's memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, traces her years as a Western mom in Beijing, where she also contends with breast cancer. It will come out with Knopf on February 8th.
Last January, just after I’d moved back to the States from Beijing with my husband and two boys, I sat down in my kitchen in Portland, Maine, opened up my laptop and joined SheWrites. I hadn’t known about the site while I lived in China. Facebook was banned there and Internet connections were sketchy. During the close to three years we were in Beijing, I divided my writing time between two different book projects—but it was a writing life in isolation. No SheWrites group shout-outs and mutual support. No SheWrites blogosphere or comment threads or online friend making.
So as soon as I got back to the States and clicked “join”, I took a close look at the SheWrites menu. I’d just finished a novel, and it didn’t take me long to find a novel writing group on the site. I was also working on my memoir then and found my way to Memoir Writers and joined there too.
And then I landed on the group that calls itself Mother Writers. “Mother Writers,” I said the words to myself out loud in the kitchen. That was me. A mother. And a writer. A writer who was a mother. And I clicked “join” again and felt for the first time like I’d found my SheWrites home.
Because I was a novel writer and a memoir writer yes, but more than anything I was a mother writer. All my plot lines and narrative arcs in some way map this territory. And it took seeing those two words on the SheWrites site for me to be able to name this place I so often travel to in my writing.
My memoir is about the dislocation of being a mother to my two boys in China, a country where we didn’t speak the language or have one friend when we moved there. I wanted the book to tell the story of how the boys translated their awe and wonder of China into four-year-old and six-year-old boy speak. And for the memoir to follow the boys to Mandarin language classes and to sit in their Beijing bedrooms with them when they ranted about how much they missed home.
So I was the mother who wrote it all down—the big, existential, high drama things the boys said, like would we ever get to go home to the States or would we all live in China until we died? And other zanier things the boys said too, like when they changed their minds and asked if they could they live in China forever because it had bamboo.
For a while I didn’t know if I had essays or stories or poems. I just knew I needed to keep writing—and getting it all down. I sensed that until I reached a tipping point—with a certain mass of material, I would just be out there in the wilderness generating material that I’d have to make sense of later.
And then one sunny Tuesday I was diagnosed with breast cancer in China and everything in my writing life stopped. I thought the memoir was over. I didn’t want to write a book about cancer. I thought that the story of mothering my boys in China had nothing to do with my story of cancer in China. The cancer was off-limits to the memoir. And the memoir was stalled.
Months passed. My radiation treatments ended. I didn’t feel like a very good mother just then—I’d been so preoccupied with getting better. And was I even a writer anymore? To begin the second half of the China memoir meant I was going to have to access the story of how I got cancer, and I was going to have to explore the ways my family was changed by that cancer.
It would take a level of intimacy with the reader that I didn’t know if I could arrive at. Because to write the whole cancer story was to touch upon private moments of such loneliness and fear, and I worried those emotions would swallow me whole, or that the draft of the book would eat me for dessert.
But one day I finally went back to the cancer journals I’d kept. They were small blue notebooks with cryptic messages in them like, “Felt like I was swimming alone in a large lake today. A cancer lake.” And things like, “If the oncologist doesn’t call me today by noon with the pathology I’m going to crack.”
I read these journals in one sitting on a grey afternoon alone in the apartment in Beijing. And when I finished the last page, I knew I had the second half of my memoir. I hadn’t stopped being a mother in cancerland. Or a writer. I’d just paused to let the disease run its course. And then I had a different book on my hands—one about being a mother who writes things she didn’t expect to know about disease. All I had to do was get out of the way and let the story tell itself.
The memoir turned into a book. And when I hold it in my hands, it’s still hard to imagine that the pages inside map my whole journey to China and to cancer and then back again. I titled the book The Foremost Good Fortune after a line in a Buddhist poem about the relief of being free from illness. And I know that good fortune now. It has allowed me to be a mother again, and a writer, and all that lives in the places in between.